Crist is pressured on insurance bill
By Jeremy Wallace
H-T Political Writer
Published: Friday, May 22, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 10:24 p.m.
A bill to allow large property insurers like State Farm to raise rates as high as the market will allow has ignited a last-gasp lobbying blitz to persuade Gov. Charlie Crist to either sign it into law or veto it.
Advocates for the insurance industry and consumer groups, as well as state legislators themselves, have generated more than 1,000 e-mails, letters and calls to Crist.
On one side, insurance lobbyists say deregulating rates gives customers the freedom to choose companies they want. But consumer groups say it really is nothing more than a money grab by large insurers.
The passion around the issue is increasing even though Crist has yet to receive the bill from the Legislature, which passed it two weeks ago. The bill is among 262 the Legislature is shipping to Crist’s office in piecemeal fashion. Only 144 of those bills have been received by the governor.
Once Crist gets this bill, the Republican governor will have 15 days to sign it, allow it to become law without his signature or veto it.
But even the delay in getting the bill to Crist is likely part of the effort to sway him. By delaying the bill’s arrival, supporters have more time to make their case to Crist, who earlier this month said the legislation gave him "some pause."
On Thursday, the lobbying efforts hit a fever pitch with Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, calling for Crist to fire the state insurance commissioner, Kevin McCarty, because of his stance against the bill. Bennett said McCarty misled him and other senators in making it appear he supported the bill during the legislative session.
But McCarty last week sent Crist a three-page letter outlining his concerns about the bill.
"The result will likely be significant and unpredictable rate increases that, during these difficult economic times, people can simply not afford," McCarty wrote.
McCarty did not explicitly urge Crist to cast a veto. But Bennett said that was what the letter implied.
Bennett interrupted a three-week European vacation to send a letter to Crist calling for McCarty’s job.
"He lied," Bennett said in a telephone interview from northern Italy. "In the Florida Legislature, when you come before us the only thing you have to offer is your word."
Bennett does not have the political power to force McCarty out, but as the chairman of the Community Affairs Committee he could create a problem for McCarty and Crist in future legislative sessions.
Bennett disputed McCarty’s points. He said it is wrong to say big insurers will be able to charge whatever they want.
"Rather, the rates will now be regulated by the market, not the state," Bennett said. "If insurers hope to sell any of these consumer choice policies, they will have to price them at an amount people will buy."
McCarty could not be reached for comment.
Staff writer John Hielscher contributed to this story. Jeremy Wallace can be reached at 361-4966 or firstname.lastname@example.org