TALLAHASSEE -- He says he is protective of Florida families, but Gov. Rick Scott can’t get a grip on one of the big pocketbook issues for many of them: the rising cost of homeowner insurance.
Scott has ordered internal investigations into spending practices at the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance, Florida’s largest insurer, and when he was blindsided by big raises to top executives, he told them to return the money.
But tackling the price of insurance is a different story.
When it comes to the cost of living, Scott talks about taxes and tuition, but insurance seems rarely part of the conversation.
“I’m for Florida families,” Scott said in an exclusive Times/Herald interview in his office. “My goal is to get more competition.”
While Floridians have dodged a hurricane for seven years, the rising cost of property insurance looms as a potential major issue in the upcoming race for governor — the political equivalent of a large, dangerous weather disturbance.
Nearly half of all Florida homeowners rate property insurance costs as a top financial concern, according to some polls. But it has never made the top of Scott’s agenda and is missing from his priority list for 2013, which is topped by a $2,500 pay raise for teachers.
Scott’s predecessor and possible future opponent, Charlie Crist, bashed insurance companies to promote his populist image. Shortly after taking office in 2007, Crist called a special legislative session to freeze Citizens’ rates, and he demonized insurers as greedy.
That’s not Scott’s nature. A conservative supporter of free markets, he wants to shrink Citizens and lure more private companies into the Florida market, on the premise that more competition will lower costs, but critics say that won’t help.
“Gov. Scott just doesn’t get it,” said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who hears daily from constituents fed up with Citizens. “Homeowners are absolutely disgusted with what Citizens is doing to them, and they definitely will blame a governor who allowed it to happen.”
In places such as Miami-Dade County, Citizens policyholders pay an average of $3,300 a year for standard coverage, eating up nearly 5 percent of a typical family’s budget. Rate hikes of 10 percent a year apparently are straining household budgets in Tampa Bay and South Florida, where Citizens dominates the market — and where more than a third of Florida voters live.
Scott says his control over Citizens is limited: He appoints two of its eight board members.
The governor’s most vocal stance on Citizens occurred at a Cabinet meeting in late 2011. Informed that the insurer was growing rapidly and struggling to control risk, Scott told then-president Scott Wallace to fix the problem within six months.
“This is something we cannot continue to do,” Scott said, harking back to a campaign promise to shrink risk at Citizens.
ONLY GETTING WORSE
By some measures, the problem has gotten worse since that Cabinet meeting. A month later, Wallace resigned, and was replaced by Tom Grady, Scott’s Naples neighbor and political ally, who soon fell out of favor with Citizens board members. He was replaced by Barry Gilway.
In the months following, property insurance has receded from Scott’s policy priority list, just as Citizens has become more aggressive than ever about remaking the company.