Storm repair tax money proposed for homeowner help


Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 10, 2006 at 9:27 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - Democrats have joined the call to use a tax windfall from hurricane rebuilding to ease the hit to homeowners who have paid extra for their property insurance to bail out the those who can't get hurricane coverage.

Facts

What it could mean to homeowners

  • FEELING THE PINCH: Florida homeowners have already been stuck with a 6.8 percent extra charge on top of their premium to cover Citizens' $500 million shortfall in 2004 and another larger assessment is expected to cover 2005 losses.

  • STORM WINDFALL: In the last two years, sales taxes charged on materials bought to fix up hurricane-damaged homes and businesses has filled state coffers with nearly $1 billion in extra money.

  • HELPING HOMEOWNERS: Supporters want the extra tax money to offset the assessment homeowners pay to bail out Citizens.

  • The proposal by legislative Democrats creates an odd alliance, joining Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher, who also has suggested using extra tax money generated by sales of hurricane repair material to offset an assessment that all Florida homeowners pay to bail out Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

    Gov. Jeb Bush, however, has already said he's against the idea.

    Citizens is the state-created insurer that provides wind and other property coverage when private insurance companies won't. When Citizens faces a shortfall, the law requires that all homeowners, including those covered by other insurance companies, pay an assessment to bail the company out.

    Florida homeowners have already been stuck with a 6.8 percent extra charge on top of their premium to cover Citizens' $500 million shortfall in 2004 and another larger assessment is expected to cover 2005 losses.

    But in the last two years, sales taxes charged on all the material bought to fix up hurricane damaged homes and businesses has filled state coffers with nearly $1 billion in extra money.

    "This sales tax bonanza that the state is earning should go directly to reduce the expenses caused by that hurricane, that is, in this case, the increases in insurance," said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, who is sponsoring the bill (SB 1012).

    A similar measure (HB 551) is sponsored in the House by Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach.

    Despite support from Gallagher, who is the state's Chief Financial Officer, the idea has an uphill battle because Bush opposes it, citing a concern that soon, the state could essentially be underwriting all damage in high hurricane risk areas.

    Legislative Democrats also proposed Tuesday to require new or renovated gas stations to have generators to avoid the gasoline crunch seen after hurricanes due to power outages. A version of that plan has also already been proposed by Republicans.

    A bill sponsored by House Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale (HB 319) and co-sponsored by Geller would require gas station owners buy a generator when they build a new station or anytime they do substantial repairs.

    Republicans have also proposed a measure (SB 530) that would require stations to have generators, but their bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach and Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, would require all stations to comply, not just new ones or those making renovations. The Republican bill - which is more likely to move with the GOP overwhelmingly in control of the Legislature - gives gas stations until Dec. 1, 2007, to comply.

    Bush has said in the past that gas stations ought to have generators, but is dead set against the state helping to buy them. Neither the Republican or Democratic bills would offer state help for the retrofitting. That could lead to opposition from gas station owners, who say generators could be extremely expensive and that the measure could be unfair to smaller owners.

    Also Tuesday, Geller proposed legislation (SB 1068) that would allow some homeowners to make hurricane preparedness improvements without increasing the assessed value of their home and thereby their property tax bill.

    Geller also sent a letter to Bush on Tuesday asking for an accounting of what Florida National Guard resources were available to respond to disasters.

    Geller didn't suggest that Florida's response to recent hurricanes was hindered by any lack of National Guard readiness, but said he was simply concerned "with finding out how much of our National Guard equipment and resources are currently overseas and not currently available to us."

    Bush spokesman Russell Schweiss said that more than 8,000 troops were available for hurricane response and that "any assertion that the National Guard was not prepared to respond to disasters in Florida is unfounded.

    "The National Guard even went as far as to routinely put out press releases during the response (to last year's storms) indicating the resources committed to the response and those that were available," Schweiss said.

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