Crist jettisons GOP dogma for insurance plan

Published: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 12:06 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - The Republican devotion to the idea of smaller government as a cure-all suffered a grave blow Thursday at the hands of a Republican governor who said people are more important than principles.
Gov. Charlie Crist, capping a 10-day rush to cement his campaign promise to be the ''people's governor,'' heaped accolades on fellow Republicans in the Legislature who reversed plans to raise insurance rates and agreed to put the state deeper into the insurance business in an effort to reduce them.
''There truly is a new wind blowing,'' Crist said Thursday. ''The powerless have now become the powerful.''
Democrats praised Crist more rabidly than Republicans, crediting him for emasculating the insurance industry's claims that higher rates were needed to create a more competitive market.
House Democratic leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said Crist's criticism of the insurance industry as ''profiteering on the backs of Floridians'' made it impossible for Republicans to argue against his promises to cut rates.
''If you have a governor who wants to take on the insurance industry I don't think any legislator will be able to stand up to that juggernaut,'' Gelber said.
Crist was celebrating a general agreement with the GOP-dominated House and Senate to remove restrictions on the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., allowing the state's largest insurer to act more like a private business.
Pending final approval by the end of the month after lawmakers convene in a special session next week, Citizens will cut its rates and be free to offer policies in more profitable areas like fire and theft. The rule that Citizens' rates must be higher than those of private insurers will be removed, allowing it to compete directly with for-profit insurance companies.
And the state will go deeper into the role of reinsurance, taking more risks and responsibility in paying for private insurers' losses in case of catastrophic storms. In exchange, private insurers must pass on savings and return excess profits.
The ''smaller government'' dogma was not the only GOP ideal jettisoned this week. Free market ideology took a blow.
Just weeks ago, Republican lawmakers dismissed Crist's campaign promise to force some insurers to offer property coverage if they sold auto insurance in the state, as well as his proposal to eliminate subsidiaries of national companies who didn't consider billions in national profits when setting Florida rates.
But opposition melted in the face of Crist's power-to-the people approach.
''I'm probably the happiest guy you're going to find around Florida today,'' Crist said. ''The incredible first steps this week are extraordinary.''
For more than a decade, Crist built a political reputation on the bedrock principles of smaller government. He said Wednesday that the state was already in the insurance business and that relief for residents struggling to live in the state was paramount. ''I am a less-government guy,'' Crist said, ''but I also understand the practical reality of where we are.''
House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, passed out cards this year that laid out three principles, including ''Do Not Expand The Role of Government.'' His spokesman, Jose Fuentes, said Thursday that Rubio wants to rein in Citizens' role, but the crisis of lowering the burden of property insurance takes precedent.
''Right now, we need to focus on what's more important,'' Fuentes said.
Asked if the idea of expanding Citizens would have been considered under doctrinaire conservative Gov. Jeb Bush, longtime Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, simply said, ''No.''
The general agreement on insurance relief caps 10 days of populist mayhem in the Capitol. Crist canceled a controversial inaugural ball, vetoed the playing at the inauguration of the state song that some find racist and opened up his office to the news media to an unusual degree.
The change under Crist has been so jarring that it was hard for some to accept the sincerity of so much glad-handing and grinning. ''What you see is what you get,'' said J.M. ''Mac'' Stipanovich, a longtime Tallahassee lobbyist and Crist adviser. ''He genuinely feels that way. He is very populist.''
The reality of the new insurance plan, if it passes, is that it risks even more taxpayer money if a severe hurricane damages the state.
That worries Rep. Dennis Ross, the Lakeland Republican who has argued for a free market solution that would allow higher rates in an effort to entice more private insurers so that competition could be reinvigorated.
He said Crist's promise to cut rates made it hard for such an argument to gain any traction.
''The voters hear we can do it. To the average person out there, then by golly if we can do it, then why are we not doing it,'' he said. ''And if you're fortunate enough to not have any storms, then you're a hero.''
For now, Crist said he wasn't worried about such perils.
''I'm more optimistic than that,'' Crist told reporters on Wednesday. ''You should know that by now.''

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