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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Apr. 29, 202105:00 AM EST

Review & Comment: Insurance bill a test of political power

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“If we can’t get meaningful reform, we’re better off doing nothing,” says Sen. Jim Boyd.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

This is it. This week is the moment we find out whether Florida lawmakers have the courage to take on Florida’s trial Bar and save Florida homeowners from unabated skyrocketing property insurance rates.

As this was going to press, Senate and House members in Tallahassee were negotiating the final terms of a bill intended to keep property insurance rates from killing homeownership for the middle class; save Florida’s property insurance industry from collapse; and save the state’s economy from a contraction that would put thousands of Floridians out of work. 

We discussed the Senate’s version of the legislation — Senate Bill 76, authored by Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton — in a March 25 column entitled, “The bill that can save Florida’s economy.”

We quoted lawmakers involved in the issue for years; a former judge who ruled on thousands of insurance lawsuits in 26 years on the bench; the CEO of Citizens Property Insurance Corp.; and an analyst who studied Florida’s property insurance industry for six months, and all of them agreed. 

If the reforms in Senate Bill 76 are not signed into law, “It’s going to be a nightmare,” said Gregory Holder, former 13th Circuit Court judge. “It is a financial crisis for the citizens of this great state. Everyone is affected by this.”

The crux of the issue is how to change the statutes to remove the incentives for plaintiffs’ lawyers to file damage-claim lawsuits on behalf of homeowners against insurance companies. In particular, lawsuits over roof damage.

According to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, Florida accounted for only 8% of all property insurance claims nationwide in 2019, but more than 75% of all lawsuits. In 2020, Florida lawyers filed 85,000 damage-claim lawsuits, compared with 42,000 in 2016.

What’s more, data show that of the $15 billion insurance companies paid out in damage claims and legal fees since 2013, 71% went to plaintiff attorney fees, 21% for insurers’ legal fees and only 8% to Florida homeowners.  

Of the two bills, Boyd’s Senate bill is regarded as stronger and more aggressive than House Bill 305 with respect to roof replacement claims and attorney fees — the two areas most responsible for driving up insurance rates statewide. 

So the question heading into the last week of the session was: Whose terms would prevail? Or, put another way, would Gov. Ron DeSantis, who supports the Senate bill, and Senate President Wilton Simpson be able to exert enough pressure and influence over House Speaker Chris Sprowls to persuade Republican House members to agree to major reforms? Or will House members succumb to behind-the-scenes pressure from trial lawyers to weaken the bill for only minor, around-the-edges reforms?

“My fear is we do a little and end up in worse shape,” Boyd told us. “If we can’t get meaningful reform, we’re better off doing nothing.”

The politics of the measure are on the side of SB 76. 

Last year, Florida-based insurers reported their fifth consecutive year of underwriting losses — $1.58 billion.

Despite the growing losses, the previous Senate president, Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and House Speaker Jose Oliva — both lawyers — declined to take on the trial Bar.

This year, Senate President Simpson is a business owner and wants Boyd’s bill passed. Speaker Sprowls is a lawyer and has greater political aspirations. He’ll be weighing his future: homeowners’ votes or trial Bar campaign funds. 

Meanwhile, we’re told, Gov. DeSantis, also a lawyer, understands the crisis and what it could mean to his own re-election in 2022. While there may be thousands of Floridians in dispute with their insurers and want to paint the insurers as the bad guys, there are 6 million property owners in Florida getting hit with 25% to 40% annual increases in their insurance rates.

It doesn’t take a political genius to do the math. 

Prediction: Boyd’s version will prevail. At least it should. 

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