The difference in how the state Legislature approached Florida’s insurance problems this year compared to last year are like the differences between night and day, hot and cold, black and white, and Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist.
Last May, lawmakers voted on a bill that came before the Legislature at the last minute and had giveaways to the insurance industry. There was a lot of arguing and not a single Democrat supported it.
During the special session that wrapped up Monday, Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass a bill that’s being praised by consumer advocates. Of the 160 House and Senate members, only two — both Republicans — voted against the bill. Democrats were given key roles in shaping the legislation.
“It’s amazing. It’s a huge shift form previous sessions when the insurance companies helped write the legislation. This time the insurance companies got rolled,” said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres. “The difference is, number one, the new governor.”
Bush, who left office at the beginning of the month, was known for not including Democrats as part of the discussion of major issues and taking the side of big business over consumers. He also had a reputation for pushing through policy and dictating how legislation should look.
Crist didn’t try to force specific policy on lawmakers. He talked to Democratic leaders nearly every day. He didn’t get elbow deep in the tiniest of details. Instead, he gave the Legislature some broad goals and let lawmakers figure out how to get there.
And Crist was pleased with the outcome, as were Democrats and Republicans.
“It’s refreshing, I think. I hope. At least it is for me,” Crist said Tuesday. “I’m as proud of the process as I am the product. The message the people sent in the election is that we want you to work together to simply do what’s right. And it’s true, and I think this issue captures it.”
While last year’s measure tried to fix insurance problems by making the market more attractive to insurance companies — including allowing for some rate increases — this year’s solution was aimed squarely at reducing rates.
It does so in a number of ways, among them simply ordering a rate rollback for the state’s largest insurer, and allowing people to change their policies to try to get savings, such as with higher deductibles. But lawmakers see the main solution in having the state’s Hurricane Catastrophe Fund take on more risk, giving insurance companies more access to the fund to help pay claims. On the hook for less risk of their own, and getting cheaper backup coverage than they can from private reinsurers, companies will have to pass on savings to customers.
The change in approach this year wasn’t unnoticed by consumer advocates. Even before the special session began, Crist invited them into his office to talk about insurance.
“That was something we had not been able to do in the prior eight years,” said Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, who said at first he wasn’t sure how sincere Crist was.
“I was pretty cynical, but he really does seem to want to help us on consumer issues,” Newton said. “I’m going to have to believe him until somebody proves differently because he’s doing it. He’s had this spirit of bipartisanship.”
The same attitude was taken up by the other two new Republican leaders at the Capitol, House Speaker Marco Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt.
House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach said more than a month ago Rubio sat down to talk with him about the issue.
“He called me in and said ‘Do you want to score political points or do you want to work on a bipartisan solution?”‘ said Gelber. “I thought that was very high-minded of him.”
So instead of sitting back and criticizing Republicans for taking the side of insurance companies in the past, Gelber and other Democrats worked with Republicans on a product that incorporated ideas Democrats had fought for in the past only to be ignored, Gelber said.
Pruitt, of St. Lucie, similarly involved Senate Democratic Leader Steven Geller in the process.
“Sen. Pruitt asked for a Senate that welcomed everyone’s ideas,” said Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster. “He asked for a Senate where Republicans and Democrats alike participate and he asked for a Senate that focused on good public policy and I think that’s what he got.”
It was an amazing change to Geller, a Cooper City lawmaker who has been in the Legislature more than 18 years.
“The difference between this year and last year is night and day. Last year the Republicans said we’re in the majority, we’ll roll over the Democrats and pass this bill,” Geller said. “This year, I have to give my compliments to Gov. Crist. He sought us out, he worked with the Democrats.”
Even Crist’s opponent in the November election, Democrat Jim Davis, had compliments for the Legislature after months of criticizing Republicans over the insurance issue and predicting Crist wouldn’t stand up to the industry.
“It’s a very good start,” said Davis. “The insurance issue should not be a partisan issue and I think Gov. Crist and the Legislature handled it the right way.”
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