It's no secret that Florida's property insurance industry is in trouble. So much trouble, in fact, that despite avoiding landfall of a major hurricane each of the last five years, Florida still saw more private insurers fail in the last 12 months than any other state in the union. A recent investigation showed one in three privately insured Floridians rely on an insurer that exhibits signs of financial risk. Some private insurers are so undercapitalized that they would be incapable of paying for even the most minor damage, let alone the catastrophic destruction caused in the wake of a major hurricane.
If you believe the noise coming from Tallahassee, echoed in the opinion columns of some of Florida's largest newspapers, you might be inclined to accept the industry explanation for this dire situation: sinkhole fraud.
Insurance fraud is wrong and a punishable crime, but it can hardly be blamed as the pre-eminent cause of the industrywide crisis. Last year, allegations of fraudulent claims accounted for less than 3 percent of the complaints brought to Florida's Division of Insurance Fraud. Similarly, convictions resulting from these fraudulent claims comprised only 2 percent of all insurance fraud convictions in the state.
Much more likely, the state's insurers are using the sinkhole issue as window dressing in an attempt to cover for the glaring misconduct it has failed to confront.
In reality, the lion's share of the blame for the industry's solvency issues falls squarely on its own shoulders. During the current five-year storm-free stretch, the state's insurers have neglected to build their capital reserves to levels that would enable them to withstand the next major disaster. Instead, insurers send as much as 86 cents on the premium dollar overseas to reinsurers who are not obligated to conform to the regulations that act to protect consumers. Florida's undercapitalized and overleveraged insurance companies are essentially slaves to these offshore reinsurers, who often charge five times the actuarial risk of loss simply because they can.
There is another dirty secret that the state's insurance companies don't want you to know. Despite all the self-pity, many Florida companies actually make sizable profits. Nearly every private insurer in the state has divided itself into several separate subsidiary companies that swap money in a veritable shell game to escape regulation.
According reporting by Paige St. John, between 2006 and 2008 Florida property insurers gave out more than $149 million in executive bonuses, perks and dividends to their holding companies while increasing Floridians' rates by an average of 35 percent over the same period.
Despite these realities, there has been a clear effort by Florida's insurance industry to build momentum for a bill (Senate Bill 408) sponsored by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, which, among other things, would make it easier to cancel policies, delay the full payment of legitimate claims, and shrink the window for filing hurricane and sinkhole claims.
Further, the bill would eliminate the requirement that companies even offer sinkhole coverage to Floridians — almost assuredly leading to the extinction of all such coverage in the state. In conjunction with this insurance wish list, the Legislature will certainly revisit its attempt to deregulate our insurance rates and let companies charge "whatever the market will bear."
Sean Shaw, Tampa
Merge promptly into traffic
Many businesses in the Tampa Bay area depend on the annual migration south by the endearingly named "snowbirds." As an employee of one of those business, I thank you. That being said, the recent influx of senior drivers on our roads has made my daily commutes between home, school and work the most stressful and dangerous part of my day.
My point is not to anger anyone, but merely to bring light to the fact that driving slower does not make it safer. Every day I make a 10-mile commute to school on a one-way street where the speed limit is 40 mph. When traffic is thick, and the majority of people are driving 40 to 45 mph, a driver in one of the left two lanes going well under the speed limit causes serious congestion. With traffic being thick, this congestion causes people to brake suddenly, and even causes accidents.
Another instance is when one of our snowbirds is attempting to merge onto I-275. While the ramp speed may say 35 mph, it is necessary to accelerate to the speed of traffic while coming off that ramp, and that acceleration should not take you 5 miles to complete. Merging onto the highway at speeds much slower than the rate at which traffic is moving causes congestion, accidents and high blood pressure.
I am not trying to get elderly people off of the roads; on the contrary, I'm attempting to make them politely aware of the reason people are honking at them. It's not because they're rude — they're signaling to give your right foot a little boost. Don't be afraid of that pedal!
Sid Thangaraj, St. Petersburg
'Open carry' a bad idea | Feb. 9, letter
Not the Wild West
I disagree with the letter opposing the "open carry" of guns. Several states have the right to open carry built into their state constitutions. Kentucky, for one, allows open carry for law-abiding citizens, however I rarely see anyone walking down the street with a six-gun hanging from their side.
As a veteran and a defender of the Constitution during wartime, I feel that I have earned the right to decide if I wish to open carry. I would, however, choose not to open carry. Concealed carry makes more sense, but I still feel that it should be my decision.
David Kendrick, New Port Richey
Cut foreign aid
It seems a good time to offer solutions on the federal budget deficit. One would be to list the top 10 countries to whom we give money. As our first obligation is here at home, do not cut any spending from domestic programs until we cut the money we give to other countries by at least half.
This should be a tea party no-brainer. The Republicans are part of the tea party. Let's see the figures and then take action.
Harry Serfes, New Port Richey
Money woes echo for Janssen | Feb. 11
Poor judgment at the top
The problem with Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen's fiscal irresponsibility is judgment. It's not that we think she will steal school funds; there are checks and balances in place against that. Instead, the highest-level administrator, in charge of millions of our tax dollars, has shown she can't even balance her own budget.
Apparently this is not a new problem for Janssen, who had "money troubles that led to bankruptcy in the mid 1990s."
Janssen earns $200,000, her husband is a lawyer, and they can't make ends meet? Is she the best we can offer our children and taxpayers? Can't we employ leaders we respect?
Cherie Haigley, St. Petersburg
Tea party won't last | Feb. 5, letter
Tea party not extreme
The tea party and 9/12 groups are not partisan organizations and pride themselves on thoughtful and principled advocacy of limited government and fiscal responsibility. They are far from radical and far from being extreme.
We call for constitutional authority, accountability, transparency and respect for the rule of law by those who have sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
Donna Beach, Pinellas Park
Grief, joy and unyielding faith | Feb. 9
An uplifting story
Thank you for the article and picture on the front page of the Times about Lorraine Yaslowitz. Your writer described how her Christian faith is helping her to cope with this tragedy in a way that appealed to people of all faith, and even to those of no faith.
I have regularly criticized the Times for presenting Christians in a way as to make us appear sappy, but today you did good. Thanks.
Jane Kline, St. Petersburg
Chip Bok cartoon | Feb. 4
The downside of corn fuel
I commend the Times for publishing the Chip Bok cartoon that sums up the consequences of using food to make fuel. A few weeks ago the Times published an excellent editorial explaining the downside of making ethanol from corn. It caught my eye because I had just spent over $1,000 to have my car repaired because of an ethanol-caused problem. I spent an additional $265 cleaning the stuff from the carburetors of my outboard motor. All of this expense prompted me to look more closely at what we have done to ourselves. Here are some issues your editorial did not mention:
1. Growing corn uses more water than any other form of energy production.
2. Fertilizer and pesticides used to grow corn ends up in the Mississippi River catchment basin and eventually flow into he Gulf of Mexico (likely causing the so-called dead zones).
3. Most of the corn is genetically modified and banned from food production, but in time modified genes migrate through pollen dispersal to infect non-GM corn.
4. It is well recognized that this practice raises the cost of food and disproportionately impacts the poor.
5. The amount of energy that goes into its production is greater than the energy that it produces. It reduces gas mileage.
6. Finally, our taxes subside ethanol production to the tune of around 45 cents per gallon.
Now the Environmental Protection Agency has approved raising the ethanol level in gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent. It's time to wake up, America.
Eugene A. Shinn, St. Petersburg
Gov. Rick Scott not only wants to cut education funding by 10 percent and employ unproven systems to measure teacher effectiveness, he also wants teachers to foot part of the bill. He wants to stab them in the back after making them pay for the knife!
Randa Robinson-Anderson, Lady Lake
Gov. Scott's budget
Less bile, more information
I am a frequent reader of the Times as I enjoy reading a newspaper and prefer it over other forms of media. Although nowhere near as liberal in outlook as the Times, I can appreciate and respect the opinions of others and cherish their right to have a different perspective. I honestly do not see, however, how the Times makes any meaningful contribution to remediating the fiscal crisis that plagues the nation and the state of Florida.
There is no way that the upside-down budget situation and deficit spending in Florida is going to be resolved without some hard sacrifices. Every proposal made by our new governor, however, is immediately trashed by the Times and cast in a negative, even spiteful, political light that does nothing to serve the urgent need for unbiased, thoughtful information and constructive solutions to our monumental problems.
The press preserves and feeds the state of indecisive chaos that plagues the nation, and in my opinion is largely responsible for our state of debilitating polarization, hysteria and inability to implement any kind of workable solutions.
Jeff Carr, Tampa
Health law mandate
A matter of choice
After reading a few letters to the editor, it's obvious some of your readers are confused.
First, not everyone is required or mandated to have auto insurance. Owning and operating a motor vehicle is a personal option, not a requirement. If you don't own a car and would rather walk, ride a bike, or take a bus, you are not required to have auto insurance.
Obamacare is forcing everyone to have health insurance. The requirement is being alive and breathing. You have no choice. Big difference.
Also, there are a few states, namely New Hampshire and Wisconsin, that don't mandate you have auto insurance at all. However, you are responsible for all liability nonetheless. Thus, auto insurance is a state-by-state issue, not a mandated federal requirement.
Frank S. Fischer, Spring Hill
Hardly the best
In one of the more bizarre ironies of the times, many of the same folks who are able to cite the most detailed NFL statistics or perform jobs that require precision and clarity of thought, willingly depart from a fact-based universe when the topic turns to politics.
Popular right-wingers like Michele Bachmann and Sean Hannity brazenly proclaim that the United States has the "best health care in the world" and point to elite institutions like the Mayo Clinic. But they conveniently forget that the exception is not the rule and that "league averages," to carry on with the sports analogy, often tell a different story.
Until the passage of "Obamacare," the United States was alone in the developed world by failing to provide universal health care. Despite the advantage of covering millions of previously uninsured Americans (and reducing the deficit as well), Republicans continue to reframe the entire bill as a travesty. Without this law, however, our infant mortality would remain ranked at 33rd in the world (just ahead of Croatia) and likely get worse. Similarly, according to CIA estimates, the average U.S. life expectancy (78.1) remains 50th out of 220 nations. Despite these facts, Republicans not only want to continue with this substandard and unjust system, but they are willing to do so at an unsustainable cost that greatly exceeds all other nations.
Any belief system that extols the sanctity of the marketplace over reality is dangerous. We do not have the best health care system — far from it. If we fail to recognize this, we will be living, to quote former President Bill Clinton, "in a parallel universe divorced from reality with no facts."
C.S. Monaco, Micanopy