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STATE SENATE GRILLS INSURERS ON RATE POLICY

Executives of large private insurers steer clear of some questions while under oath.

The showdown Monday between state lawmakers and some of the biggest property insurers did little to clarify why rate cutting laws haven't worked and sparked several testy exchanges.

Do you make a profit on auto insurance, a state senator asked Allstate Floridian chief executive Joseph Richardson.

"To my knowledge, I cannot comment," Richardson answered. "I don't want to comment on whether we are or whether we aren't, senator."

What's your annual salary, another senator inquired later.

"That's confidential information," Richardson said.

Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, wanted more concrete answers.

"I haven't seen so much bobbing and weaving since Muhammad Ali did rope-a-dope," said Posey, who runs a Senate committee in charge of creating insurance policy. "We could be doing this forever."

The two-day hearings come a year after the Legislature passed an insurance package, often referred to as House Bill 1A, that expanded the state catastrophe fund by $12-billion to $28-billion. The idea was that companies could buy cheaper, state-backed reinsurance and pass the savings on to policyholders.

But as many Florida homeowners continue to pay more for property insurance policies, the Florida Senate decided to grill insurance company executives for answers as to why consumers haven't benefited.

The senators started questioning top officials at Florida subsidiaries of Allstate and Nationwide, two companies that have dropped thousands of homeowner policies over the past few years and have stopped writing new policies while seeking higher rates. The hearings continue today with three new companies on the hot seat: Florida Farm Bureau, the Hartford Group and newcomer American Strategic Insurance Co. of St. Petersburg.

Senate leaders revealed that they are already plotting another set of hearings, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 18 and 19, to target reinsurers and insurance rating agencies.

The insurance executives, who were under oath, steered clear of saying anything that might lead to a perjury charge while defending rate-making practices.

"In a state like Florida ... we do feel we have to be very careful about preserving surplus," said Allstate Floridian vice president Bonnie Gill, explaining why the company wants to charge customers more for what amounts to a rainy-day fund for hurricane claims. Regulators say that fund is too big and too profitable, especially in nonhurricane years. Allstate says it's a backup fund that needs to be ready to pay for major hurricanes.

Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, delved into whether a footnote in an internal Allstate presentation subpoenaed by state regulators suggested that Allstate officials looked for a way to avoid passing savings on to customers from new rate-cutting laws. The footnote suggested that the company would use a new kind of hurricane model that predicts more hurricanes in the near future, which would allow the company to charge higher rates to pay for the increased risk.

"Would it be your testimony ... that you were unaware of all these things that concern us today," Atwater asked Richardson, Allstate Floridian's chief. "That House Bill 1A would reduce rates. That your company saw that. That your company looked to find out if there was a way around that. That they provided you with a model that would suggest there should be a 43 percent increase (in rates) and that you signed it."

"We file hundreds of rates countrywide. ... I'm confident in our rate-making process, that's what we came here today to discuss," Richardson responded. "I do believe we complied with House Bill 1A."

Florida House members watched the Senate hearings on Monday, and House Majority Leader Adam Hasner released a statement calling the hearings "an important step in a continuing process to find answers to Florida's insurance challenges."

Yet two House members who opposed last year's insurance reforms held a news conference Monday afternoon again blasting those insurance laws and Florida's insurance market.

During the hearing, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, tried to ask Richardson about Allstate's auto insurance business, since Allstate officials noted that they had picked up auto policies while dropping nearly a half-million property insurance policies over several years.

But Richardson did not answer Fasano's question about whether the company made a profit.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, also didn't get very far when she tried to find out if Richardson's salary was tied to the company's economic health.

Storms followed up her question about his salary by asking if he had any stock options.

"That's confidential," Richardson said again.

Storms said she was surprised Richardson would not answer the questions.

"It must be so damning," Storms said. "Yeah, they weren't happy about that question."

Times staff writer Tom Zucco contributed to this report.

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