Fla. Pols Ready to Lead Lobbying Effort for National Catastrophe Fund

By | January 29, 2007

Now that the Florida Legislature has passed a bill that lawmakers say will address the state’s insurance problems, Gov. Charlie Crist and legislative leaders said Thursday their attention will be on pushing for a national catastrophe fund.

Crist plans to lobby his peers from around the country at the National Governor’s Association meeting in Washington next month, while House Speaker Marco Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt are organizing a state/federal summit which will have the issue at the top of the agenda.

Other coastal states are experiencing similar insurance problems, if not to the same degree as Florida, said Pruitt.

“North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, Texas — they have the same challenges we have,” he said. “You just take those states around the coast of our country and there’s enough congressional members there to make anything that needs to happen happen.”

On top of that, Rubio said the effort to move up Florida’s presidential primary so the state is more influential in the outcome could put pressure on candidates to address the issue.

“You don’t have to answer those questions now in Iowa and New Hampshire, but you’ll have to answer that in Florida. And now California is looking to move up their primary, and you’ll have to answer it there as well,” said Rubio.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already written to Crist to express interest in working together on insurance issues. Crist said it’s something he plans to bring up with other governor’s next month.

“We’re on the right path, we just have to keep fighting,” Crist said.

Florida’s congressmen and Sens. Mel Martinez, a Republican, and Bill Nelson, a Democrat, also favor the idea of a national catastrophe fund. The general idea is that policy holders around the country would share the risk in the event of a major disaster no matter where it occurs — an earthquake in California, a hurricane striking Texas, a tornado in Kansas or a flood along the Mississippi River.

But members of Florida’s congressional delegation point out that it’s going to be a hard sell to their colleagues in states like Montana. And while the House may have a large number of votes in places like California, Texas and Florida to counter those from states where disasters aren’t a problem, all votes are equal in the Senate.

“If you are a senator from Montana or Colorado, no amount of persuasive speeches are going to make you essentially tax your constituents to subsidize the hurricane risk in Florida,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, a Republican from the Orlando area who sits on the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees insurance issues.

“Anyone that is trying to convince Florida’s homeowners that a resolution at the federal level is right around the corner is being overly optimistic,” Feeney said.

Still, freshman U.S. Rep. Ron Klein is optimistic. He and fellow freshman Rep. Tim Mahoney also sit on the House Financial Services Committee and Klein said its chairman, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has asked the Palm Beach County Democrats to take the lead on the issue.

“He has personally said to me ‘I want to help you get something moving on this,”‘ Klein said. “This is a bipartisan issue. The way I want to position this is that this is not only coming from Florida, but other states. I want other parts of the country to realize that this is for their benefit.”

While Feeney has doubts about a national catastrophe fund coming out of Washington, he says there are other ways the federal government can help. He’s proposing tax free catastrophe accounts that property owners can use to pay insurance deductibles after a loss. He’s also supporting tax breaks for insurance companies who put money in savings accounts to be tapped after catastrophes.

The federal government also can help organize a regional catastrophe fund if coastal states want to work together, he said.

“That proposal would not run into anywhere near the resistance,” Feeney said.

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