TALLAHASSEE -- Property insurance reform was nowhere to be found among Gov. Rick Scotts legislative priorities during this years lawmaking session in Tallahassee.
But even as Scott pushed publicly for lawmakers to pass bills on car insurance reform, job creation incentives and education funding, he was working behind the scenes on another significant project: A massive overhaul of Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
The goal? Shrink Citizens drastically without involving the Legislature, which historically has set policy guidelines for the state-run insurer.
We have to have real solutions, and I, along with everybody else up here, we expect the Citizens board to find them, Scott told then-Citizens president Scott Wallace during a meeting of the Florida Cabinet last November.
Wallace had told Scott and other members of the Cabinet that Citizens would need guidance from the Legislature in order to make major headwinds. Scott did not address the request, instead telling Wallace and the board to solve the problem by June of next year before the next hurricane season.
Wallace resigned a month later, and was replaced by Tom Grady, Scotts neighbor and political ally.
In the months since that tense meeting and Gradys appointment, Citizens eight-member board has intensified an unprecedented campaign to remake the state-owned insurer in ways typically reserved for the Legislature. For homeowners, it has meant drastic rate hikes, reduced coverage and a rapidly changing insurance marketplace. The insurer recently unveiled and ultimately abandoned a plan to unilaterally stop applying the Legislatures 10-percent cap on rate increases to new customers.
Grady who supported the plan despite sigificant public outcry was forced out by the board in June.
To comply with their marching orders from Tallahassee, the board is looking for any way possible to raise rates that they can without going before the Legislature, said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, implying that the governors office is directing Citizens from behind the scenes. Theyve gone way beyond what they should be dealing with.
Scott did not respond to a request for comment.
Aside from Fasano and a few other elected officials, most lawmakers have remained on the sidelines as the Citizens board has taken on more responsibility and pushed insurance costs higher.
The governors decision to reform Citizens without involving the Legislature reflects many of the political realities of governing in Florida during an election year.
Several lawmakers in Scotts own party particularly in South Florida have openly disagreed with the governor and other Republicans over property insurance, a contentious pocketbook issue for voters.
Despite an overwhelming Republican majority in the Florida Legislature, lawmakers have had a hard time reaching a consensus on property insurance reform, which many see as a political minefield in an election year.
In some parts of the state, voting to raise Citizens insurance rates can be tantamount to political suicide, and several candidates for office are already facing negative campaign ads highlighting their insurance-related votes.
In the Tampa area, a political group has sent out mailers bashing Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, for a vote he cast in favor of a controversial bill to allow unregulated companies to take over Citizens policies.