Sunday, April 5, 2009

Florida legislators consider gradual property insurance hikes as Citizens cap nears end

Tampabay.com, via the St. Petersburg Times (Florida): With the 2009 hurricane season fast approaching and the legislative session more than halfway over, lawmakers consumed in recent weeks by Florida's budget woes are turning their attention to the state's troubled property insurance market.

For residential property owners, that could mean paying premiums of between 10 and 20 percent more each year — but only if legislators can come to an agreement before the session ends in May. A Senate proposal this week stalled in its first committee amid concerns about raising homeowners' insurance costs during economic hard times. "The last thing people can afford right now is increased premiums," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

The problem facing the Sunshine State is this: Thanks in part to the global recession and tightening credit markets, Florida's Hurricane Catastrophe Fund is billions of dollars short of what it would need to cover massive property damage likely to come from "the big one."

Legislators' long-term solution, unveiled in recent days, is this: Let rates for state-run Citizens Insurance rise to more realistic market rates, but gradually, to boost cash assets and reduce the need for bonds. Encourage Citizens policyholders to strengthen their homes against storms, and slowly reduce the financial liability for Florida insurance customers should a major storm hit.

… Right now the Cat Fund has about $4 billion in cash on hand and the ability to raise a few billion more through bonds, leaving a more than $18 billion gap of losses that need to be covered in the event of a major storm, Nicholson said. That's a shortfall that could financially devastate the state, and would have to be made up in part through assessments on all Florida property owners in the event of a big storm.

Christine Turner, director of legislative and external affairs for Citizens, supports the "glide path" of gradually increasing rates. But she has concerns about a provision in the bills to send 10 percent of revenue from the increased Citizens rates into the My Safe Florida program, which is designed to help Floridians harden their homes against a storm. "If I am a Citizens holder, I want my money going to cover claims, not a home mitigation program," Turner said.

Hurricane Fay over Florida at peak strength, August 2008. NASA

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