Advocates of insurance reform say higher rates now will save Florida down the road when a big hurricane hits. That could leave taxpayers with a big bill.
“This is the one issue that could seriously cause long-term, catastrophic damage to the state’s economy,” said Christian Cámara, Florida director of the free-market think-tank R Street Institute. Cámara said the group offers “free market solutions” to the Citizens issue and is pushing for higher insurance rates in Florida.
Homeowners in South Florida and Tampa Bay have already seen prices jump in the last year. Rate increases of about 11 percent have cost the standard Citizens policyholder more than $250, and a massive reinspection program raised premiums of more than 250,000 Floridians by an average of about $800.
Raising insurance rates higher right before an election year could be politically difficult. Miami-Dade lawmakers have made it a priority to stem the price hikes and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said lawmakers should be careful about pushing rates up too high, too quickly.
“With Citizens, we have to take an incremental approach,” he said, adding that lawmakers should be “sensitive to the rates that citizens of our state can pay.”
Since 2006, two utility companies have billed Floridians more than $1 billion in charges for new nuclear plants that might not ever be built. The Legislature passed the law allowing utilities like Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light to charge ratepayers for future construction.
After high profile shuttering of the Crystal River nuclear plant, many wonder if that construction will ever take place. Constituents and consumer advocates have begun to cry foul about the $1 billion in charges, and some lawmakers are seeking to repeal or amend the costly 2006 law.
A bill filed by Tampa area Senators seeks to crack down on the utility companies by requiring them give money back to taxpayers if they decide not to complete construction of a project.
“This legislation brings accountability and common sense into our energy policy discussion,” said bill sponsor Sen. John Legg, R-Port Richey.
The bill, and others aimed at reducing energy costs, could face an uphill battle in the Legislature. Utility companies hold considerable sway in Tallahassee, and are heavy contributors to political candidates and parties.
Florida became the nation’s No. 1 state for foreclosures last year, and the rising mortgage delinquency rate has caught the attention of lawmakers. One measure being considered would speed up the foreclosure process — which normally takes more than two years in Florida. Bill sponsor Rep. Kathleen Passidomo said a more efficient foreclosure system will help bring Florida’s housing market back to normalcy.
“Unfortunately, if you don’t have an income or you can’t afford to pay anything, the property can’t just sit in limbo forever,” she said.
Critics say the bill will force out homeowners before they have an opportunity to mount a legal defense. More foreclosures could cause a drag on home values.
On other housing-related measures, the state’s budget surplus could allow the Legislature to direct more money to homeowner assistance programs.
Scott is proposing $50 million in spending for such programs, after sweeping the trust fund dedicated to them for the last two years. Legislative leaders have pledged to use an additional $200 million from a national mortgage settlement for housing assistance program.
The usual push to slash homeowners’ property taxes has been mostly absent from the discussion this year, as lawmakers have focused instead on cutting business taxes.
Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO