Crist driving force in insurance changes
Published: Tuesday, January 23, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 23, 2007 at 12:07 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Just weeks ago, most Republican lawmakers felt the only way to deal with a property insurance crisis that threatened the state's future was to raise rates in an effort to keep private insurers in Florida.
On Monday, those same lawmakers voted almost unanimously to approve a bill written by Democrats and Republicans that forced private insurers to cut rates by expanding the state's involvement in the dangerously volatile world of insurance.
The major reason for the historic shift was Gov. Charlie Crist, who used relentless cheeriness, vitriolic attacks on insurance companies and pleas to help average Floridians in cajoling lawmakers.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, referring to Crist's omnipresent campaign slogan, called him "the people's governor."
''If he has a problem with a bill, the people have a problem with the bill,'' Fasano said.
Throughout the weekend, Crist called lawmakers with encouragement, thanking them for their work and urging them to cut rates. But Monday morning, the tougher side of Crist became clear, too.
Upset by a provision in the bill, already agreed to by the House and Senate, that would have forced customers of state-run Citizens Property Insurance to choose more costly insurance from private companies, Crist made it clear to lawmakers that Floridians should be able to choose their insurer freely.
The change was made, and lawmakers approved the bill in the House and Senate by a combined 156-2 margin.
Similarly, Crist persuaded the GOP-dominated House to allow Citizens to sell other policies in more profitable areas like fire and theft. Though the House limited that to coastal areas, it was still a startling U-turn from the conservative House's mantra of smaller government.
''They weren't going to budge on expanding Citizens,'' said Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon. ''Gov. Crist basically said, 'Look, it ain't a go unless you do that.'''
Whether the insurance fix works will depend largely on how lucky Florida is in avoiding major hurricanes. Should the state suffer catastrophic damages in any one year, all of the state's residents will feel the pain in higher insurance rates, including other policies like auto insurance, to pay for the repairs.
But for now, lawmakers from both parties celebrated a dramatic reversal from last year's bill that required higher rates.
Lawmakers clearly felt empowered after years of Gov. Jeb Bush's intensity.
''(Bush) would not only have said he wanted to do this, but he would have told us how to do it and how far to go,'' said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors. ''Jeb often overwhelmed this process. Charlie really motivated the process.''
Crist avoided dictating exact details, saying only that he wanted a bill that lowered rates. And Crist, in fact, didn't get much of what he asked for, with lawmakers ignoring his plans to freeze rates, to bar insurance companies from dropping policies and to force insurers to set rates by including their national profits.
But by avoiding ideological and technical demands, Crist rode his breezy optimism to success anyway.
Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, led the House's efforts to write the bill. He said Crist's experience as a state senator in the 1990s may create a more open-minded spirit in Tallahassee.
''He realizes the Legislature's job is to make those decisions and when he sees it going a little off kilter, he'll tell you,'' Sansom said.
Lawmakers said it wasn't Crist alone that allowed political divisions to dissolve, saying there was no way legislators could not cut rates and survive constituents' anger.
''This is not a partisan issue,'' Seiler said. ''This crisis hit every homeowner.''
Crist pleaded to ''Remember Stan'' last week in a news conference, a reference to a Port Charlotte homeowner who couldn't afford insurance. And Crist maintained the populist talk Monday after the bill was approved.
''Whenever the voice of the people can be heard, whether it's the governor calling that voice and sharing it or the people coming here by the busloads themselves there's no more powerful, no more effective way to change public policy,'' Crist said, adding that it was a model for Washington to adopt.
Dusty Hall, his 11-year-old son Jonathan Hall and eight-year-old Connor Holt had come to the Capitol to visit Holt's mother. Instead, the children also bounced in the governor's chair and sat next to the state seal that is set in the carpet as Crist got down on his knees to explain the various symbols in the seal.
Crist then sat with them on the couch for a photo, with all four smiling with thumbs raised up.
''We're celebrating a victory,'' Crist said.
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