When it comes to Citizens, Rick Scott's in political pickle

Gov. Rick Scott says his control over Citizens Insurance is limited: He appoints two of its eight board members.

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Gov. Rick Scott says his control over Citizens Insurance is limited: He appoints two of its eight board members.

TALLAHASSEE — He says he is protective of Florida families, but Gov. Rick Scott can't get a grip on one of the big pocketbook issues for many of them: the rising cost of homeowners' insurance.

Scott ordered internal investigations of spending practices at the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance, Florida's largest insurer, and when he was blindsided by big raises to top executives, he told them to return the money.

But the price of insurance is a different story.

When it comes to the cost of living, Scott talks about taxes and tuition, and insurance is rarely part of the conversation.

"I'm for Florida families," Scott said in an exclusive Times/Herald interview in his office. "My goal is to get more competition."

Fortunate Floridians have dodged a hurricane for seven years. But the rising cost of property insurance looms as a potential major issue in the upcoming race for governor — the political equivalent of a large, dangerous weather disturbance.

Anxiety over insurance is greatest in Tampa Bay and South Florida, and nearly half of all Florida homeowners rate property insurance costs as a top financial concern. But it has never made the top of Scott's agenda and is missing from his priority list for 2013, which is topped by a $2,500 pay raise for teachers.

Scott's predecessor and possible future opponent, Charlie Crist, bashed insurance companies to promote his populist image. Shortly after taking office in 2007, Crist called a special legislative session to freeze Citizens' rates, and he demonized insurers as greedy.

That's not Scott's nature. A conservative supporter of free markets, he wants to shrink Citizens and lure more private companies into the Florida market, on the premise that more competition will lower costs, but critics say that won't help.

"Gov. Scott just doesn't get it," said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who hears daily from constituents fed up with Citizens. "Homeowners are absolutely disgusted with what Citizens is doing to them, and they definitely will blame a governor who allowed it to happen."

In places like Miami-Dade, Citizens policyholders pay an average of $3,300 a year for standard coverage, eating up nearly 5 percent of a typical family's budget. Rate hikes of 10 percent a year are straining household budgets in Tampa Bay and South Florida, where Citizens dominates the market — and where more than one-third of Florida voters live.

Scott says his control over Citizens is limited: He appoints two of its eight board members.

The governor's most vocal stance on Citizens occurred at a Cabinet meeting in late 2011. Informed that the insurer was growing rapidly and struggling to control risk, Scott told then-president Scott Wallace to fix the problem within six months.

"This is something we cannot continue to do," Scott said, harking back to a campaign promise to shrink risk at Citizens.

By some measures, the problem has gotten worse since that Cabinet meeting. A month later, Wallace resigned and was replaced by Tom Grady, Scott's Naples neighbor and political ally, who soon fell out of favor with Citizens board members. He was replaced by Barry Gilway.

In the months following, property insurance has receded from Scott's policy priority list, just as Citizens has become more aggressive than ever about remaking the company.

The Citizens board has cut back coverage, advanced a massive home reinspection program and proposed uncapped rates on new policies. The result is higher rates for less coverage, with homeowners facing huge spikes in insurance costs.

Citizens raised rates 10.8 percent last year, costing homeowners statewide an estimated $250 million. The company sent inspectors to the homes of 360,000 Floridians, causing premiums to jump by $800, on average, for the vast majority of those targeted in the program.

Both Citizens' critics and its board chairman, Carlos Lacasa, say the insurer is following through with the wishes of Scott.

"Through the back door, he (Scott) is putting pressure on Gilway and the board to do certain things," Fasano said. "But what he doesn't realize is that the pressure he's putting on them to shrink (Citizens) is having a negative effect on a lot of homeowners in this state."

While critics like Fasano blame Scott for insurance rate increases, the governor maintains a limited view of his role in the property insurance debate.

Asked what he has done to address the state's property insurance problem, he said he has invited companies to come to Florida and warned homeowners of the hidden risk of taxpayer-backed insurance that will force higher assessments if a hurricane strikes.

Citizens has a $15 billion portfolio and a record amount of cash after seven years with no hurricanes, but a Category 5 storm could wipe out its reserves. That would lead to so called "hurricane taxes" on most consumers.

The company was created in 2002 to help provide coverage for those who could not find it in the private market, which contracted sharply after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Rates at Citizens are lower than what risk experts believe the company should be charging, but often higher than what homeowners can afford.

Fiscal conservatives say the government-run company is forcing inland residents to "subsidize" those near Florida's coast.

"I don't believe that I ought to be subsidized by people who live in Lakeland," said Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who lives in a waterfront home.

A bill now being debated in the state Senate would create major changes to Citizens, requiring the company charge rates higher than in the private market.

But Scott, whose 2010 platform promised to work with the Legislature to "ensure that Citizens consistently operates on actuarially sound rates," said he has not read the bill. "I ran on jobs and education," Scott said.

The politics at Citizens have always been thorny. The company has issued 1.2 million policies that cover nearly a quarter of Florida's electorate, and voters are quick to blame government-controlled insurance rates on elected officials. The Republican majority often breaks apart along geographical lines when it comes to Citizens, with coastal constituents telling their lawmakers to vote against rate increases.

Barbara Costa, who moved to Pasco County from the West Coast, said her insurance costs in Florida are three times higher than California's "even with earthquakes, mudslides and wildfires."

The emails flooding Scott's inbox have become more hostile, as allegations of Citizens' corporate misconduct and executive spending have surfaced. Homeowners complain that their premium increases are more discouraging when they hear about various management problems at Citizens.

In the past year, Scott has twice called for his inspector general to investigate allegations of waste and excess by Citizens executives. But the makeup of the board remains unchanged.

"I'm for making sure Citizens operates properly," Scott said. "The raises were ridiculous. . . . We're not paying for alcohol. They ought to have an inspector general. We ought to make sure the place works right, first."

When it comes to Citizens, Rick Scott's in political pickle 02/23/13 [Last modified: Monday, February 25, 2013 11:33pm]

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