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Florida lawmakers rush to pass property insurance reforms

“Why don’t we legislate anymore?” a lawmaker asked.
From start to finish, the Legislature spent a total of three days in Tallahassee to address what most agree is a five-alarm crisis in the state’s insurance market.
From start to finish, the Legislature spent a total of three days in Tallahassee to address what most agree is a five-alarm crisis in the state’s insurance market. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 24|Updated May 25

TALLAHASSEE — Florida senators noticed a conspicuous absence during Monday’s start to the special session about fixes to Florida’s broken property insurance market.

“We haven’t heard from anyone from (the Office of Insurance Regulation), who I’m shocked is not here today,” Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, remarked about two and a half hours into a Senate committee hearing.

About 10 minutes later, another senator asked whether anyone from the office was in the committee room. Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier raised his hand from the back corner, in one of the seats farthest away from senators.

In a normal session, Altmaier, the state’s point person on insurance, might be seated in the front row, ready to provide input or answer lawmakers’ questions.

Related: Florida lawmakers want to fix property insurance. Here are the big issues.

But during this week’s special session, legislators rushed to pass a property insurance bill before the Memorial Day weekend, leaving little time for questions and frustrating lawmakers who wanted to understand the crisis.

Legislators this week convened no panels of experts and heard no testimony from key state insurance officials, including the Department of Financial Services, which splits insurance regulation with Altmaier’s office, or the state’s insurance consumer advocate. Altmaier did spend time answering lawmakers’ questions.

Lawmakers expressed irritation that they lack data to understand what’s causing insurers to request double-digit rate increases and to drop tens of thousands of policies across the state.

The two bills passed by the House and Senate, released less than 72 hours before the start of the special session, each received a single hearing, and Republican leaders entertained no serious debate or discussion about amending them.

“We’re supposed to come here to use an old-fashioned word. ... We called it ‘legislating,’” Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, told a House committee on Tuesday. “Why don’t we legislate anymore?”

From start to finish, the Legislature spent a total of three days in Tallahassee to address what most agree is a five-alarm crisis in the state’s insurance market. That includes time to read and debate a 101-page bill released Tuesday that would create post-Surfside condominium inspection rules.

Related: Florida Legislature will consider bill on condo reforms for inspections, reserves

Lawmakers finished up the special session Wednesday afternoon after approving several short- and long-term fixes to the homeowners’ insurance market. The legislation, released on Friday night, came after weeks of closed-door discussions between Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office and the leaders of the House and Senate. Among the changes lawmakers made:

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  • Preventing insurers from dropping or refusing to insure homes solely because of a roof’s age if the roof is less than 15 years old.
  • Placing numerous limits on the fees lawyers can collect in lawsuits against insurers.
  • Assigning $2 billion to create a new reinsurance program — insurance that insurers buy — and requiring any companies that use to pass those savings on to homeowners.
  • Enhancing scrutiny of insurers that fail.

Lawmakers have said they haven’t done any analyses of the bills to determine what effect they will have on homeowners’ rates, although it’s unlikely rates will go down for at least 18 months, they said. They also don’t know how many companies would tap into the reinsurance program.

Part of the reason for the rush is because the sharp increase in rates has become an emergency, Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said Tuesday night. The reinsurance program also needs to be passed before June 1, he said, so insurers can buy it ahead of storm season.

“It’s untenable. We need to do something now,” Trumbull said.

Lawmakers are already warning that they could be coming back to pass more changes.

Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said he’s asked Senate leadership to hold a workshop over the summer to explore the issue.

Insurers have blamed excessive litigation by trial lawyers and claims triggered by fraudulent roofers for driving up costs and causing them to request double-digit rate increases. Altmaier has agreed that excessive litigation is driving up rates, citing national data showing that Florida makes up a disproportionate share of lawsuits.

How much those lawsuits actually cost insurers is a major question that remains unanswered.

“This has been a constant source of frustration,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, told reporters about the lack of data on Tuesday. “It is very difficult for us to do anything on any policy area without information.”

Last year, the Legislature passed an insurance bill that ordered the Office of Insurance Regulation to start collecting data this year from insurers about the types of lawsuits they’re seeing.

But as lawmakers were meeting this week, the Office of Insurance Regulation had nothing to produce. Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, asked Altmaier why on Monday.

“Knowing, and in consideration, that we had an insurance crisis and needed that data like two years ago, you don’t have any data from any companies that might have been early with your submission that you can provide to us?” Pizzo asked.

Altmaier responded that he had to go through the state’s rule-making process, which is still ongoing, and early data would likely be inaccurate.

While the legislation passed overwhelmingly, it received a largely lukewarm reception from lawmakers. A better bill could have been produced, some said.

“There’s a part of me that really wishes that we would have had more time,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa. “When we have to do things in such a condensed timeframe, it doesn’t really allow for the natural conversations that otherwise would take place during the process.”

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