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Want to pick state insurance regulator?

Published Feb. 15, 2006

Four years after the Florida Legislature decided the job of regulating insurance was too powerful for a single statewide elected official, bipartisan support is growing to let voters again pick the insurance commissioner.

The idea, suggested in the wake of Hurricane Wilma by a Democratic South Florida state senator running for Congress, has more than a dozen Senate sponsors and the backing of the House Insurance Committee chairman Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland.

The proposal would place a question on the November ballot to change the state Constitution to add a statewide elected insurance commissioner starting in 2008. It would include limits on how much insurance companies or their officers could contribute to the candidates seeking the job.

The idea has gained momentum against a backdrop of skyrocketing insurance rates.

Adding to the outrage was last week's controversial disclosure that Kevin McCarty, the state's appointed insurance commissioner, had quietly approved a 16.3 percent increase for the state's third largest property insurer, Allstate Floridian, just four months after issuing press releases saying he had rejected it.

"What we saw last week was an appointed and insulated insurance commissioner quietly approving a rate hike that had just recently been loudly and publicly denied," congressional hopeful and state Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, complained Tuesday as he stood with Ross and two other South Florida lawmakers backing the plan. Klein is seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale. "Florida's homeowners deserve a system that is forthright and accountable."

Florida has had an appointed insurance commissioner since 2003, after a voter-approved change that shrank the Cabinet from six statewide elected officials to three, in part by consolidating two money-related posts, comptroller and treasurer, into the job of chief financial officer.

Lawmakers decided in 2002, however, that the CFO job shouldn't include most of the regulatory power formally held by the comptroller, who regulated banking, and the treasurer, who regulated insurance.

Instead, they approved a law placing banking and insurance oversight with the governor and three remaining Cabinet members: Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, Attorney General Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher. The board was to appoint two regulators.

Whether Florida's full Legislature is ready to undo that structure, which was agreed to only after three years of bickering, is far from clear. It wasn't part of the formal House insurance reform plans Ross unveiled Tuesday.

Plus, several prominent lawmakers have complained in recent months that decades of an elected insurance commissioner, who must appease voters, appears to have suppressed rates. Their evidence: private insurance companies have limited their exposure in the state causing the state's insurers of last resort to swell. And the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. didn't have sufficient reserves to weather the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.

This year, all Florida homeowner policy holders are on the hook for more than $1.8-billion in assessments to make up the 2004 and 2005 deficits in Citizens, which provides insurance coverage for homeowners who can't find it from a private company.

Republican Gov. Jeb Bush doesn't have a formal role in deciding whether lawmakers could put such a question on the November ballot. But he suggested Tuesday he would try to use his bully pulpit to quash it.

"We need to avoid the demagoguery that goes on in a complex issue that elected officials might bring to the equation," Bush told reporters. "I think our system is good right now. The simple fact is when you have eight hurricanes in two years . . . you're going to have enormous losses. And enormous losses require increases in premiums or these companies go out of business."

Meanwhile, insurance industry representatives are expected to be split, as they were in 2002 when lawmakers drafted the current structure.

"We didn't get in that fight before and I don't suspect we will again," said Sam Miller of the Florida Insurance Council. "Whatever they decide is what we will have to operate on. . . . I just hope no one thinks this is a magic bullet that is going to lower insurance rates unless the elected insurance commissioner can stop hurricanes."

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Joni James can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or