Bipartisanship on insurance was the result of fear

Published: Tuesday, January 23, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 23, 2007 at 12:40 a.m.
Sometimes fear is a beautiful thing.
Look what happened in Tallahassee last week. State legislators banded together to devise insurance reforms that will reduce property and windstorm rates for many Floridians, and will kill gigantic rate hikes that were facing others.
It's historic because the Senate and the House rarely work in unison, and even more rarely side with consumers instead of the powerful insurance lobby.
All this happened because of fear, the most basic human instinct. Lawmakers are scared witless at the prospect of going home empty-handed from the special session called by House and Senate leaders.
They are deathly afraid of facing the people who elected them, terrified of being stamped as squirmy shills for special interests.
Busloads of hacked-off homeowners rode to the capital and loudly reminded the Legislature where its loyalties ought to lie. The message was received. Nothing strikes panic into the heart of a politician like a crowd of regular citizens asking to be heard.
Sometimes this is how democracy works. Sometimes the best way to grab the attention of those who govern is to frighten them into getting off their butts.
Because, above all else, they do not wish to lose their jobs.
Still, it's naive to think that a voter uprising was the only impetus for legislators to overhaul the insurance laws. Those asinine rate hikes have finally affected the housing market, which means that certain other folks are upset.
Folks who hire heavyweight lobbyists; who donate gobs of money to political campaigns; who get their phone calls returned promptly in Tallahassee.
Remember the great Everglades epiphany of the early '90s, when politicians with no previous interest in the environment suddenly decided it was imperative to replumb the precious River of Grass?
That was partly because voters demanded it, and partly because big developers realized they needed a vast, guaranteed source of fresh water to continue building. The restoration legislation might never have passed, had saving the Everglades not been perceived as being a good deal for business.
Similarly, solving the insurance crisis became a bipartisan crusade in part because soaring premiums have hurt home sales and sent a shock wave through industries with heavy clout.
Don't blame the hurricanes. The system was a flimsy house of cards, and collapse was inevitable.
In an economy such as Florida's, based so heavily on mass development, greed always trumps common sense. Builders, banks and insurance companies depend on each other to keep home sales churning, and for years not enough attention was paid to the durability of the houses and condos being crammed along the coasts.
No matter what kind of crackerbox death trap you got suckered into buying, finding insurance was not a problem.
Then Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992, and things changed. A bit.
Insurance firms that didn't bail out of the state continued to write policies in shoddily built, high-risk subdivisions; they compensated by jacking up everybody's rates. The state even formed its own sham insurance outfit, Citizens Property, to make sure no one was denied coverage.
The idea of supporting limits on coastal density - and therefore limiting damages - in a prime hurricane zone was never seriously contemplated. Then came the hellacious storm season of 2005, including Katrina, and the industry's unsurprising response was to boost policy fees even higher.
Only when the rates began to devastate family budgets did lawmakers wake up. And, to their credit, the changes being discussed could be substantial - swift cuts in premiums charged by private insurers, a rollback and freeze of Citizen's rates, and provisions allowing homeowners to lower their insurance costs by voluntarily absorbing higher storm deductibles.
But ghosts of politics past linger ominously. Among the new ''reforms'' in the works: Make the Panhandle adopt the same stricter building code used by the rest of the state.
Idiotic but true: Despite the battering that the region has taken from recent storms, lawmakers had allowed weaker building rules to remain in the Panhandle.
Why? Because those lawmakers cared more about pleasing the construction lobby than protecting the families who were buying those homes, and forking out a small fortune for the insurance.
More monster hurricanes will smack Florida, and one way or another we'll all wind up paying for the damage. The new laws cannot undo half a century of reckless growth and heedless planning.
At least for now, though, the politicians are listening more closely to the right people - the ones who can vote them out of office. That's why they are deeply and properly afraid.
Carl Hiaasen writes for the Miami Herald.

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