TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers in a special legislative session this week set in motion a laundry list of changes to the state’s beleaguered property-insurance system.

But proponents of the effort said that it could be some time before the overhaul can help to bring down rates for consumers.

A result of the special session, which wrapped Wednesday, was a wide-ranging, 105-page bill (SB-2A) dealing with numerous issues aimed at propping up the insurance market.

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Perhaps the most contentious example of the changes was an effort to curb lawsuits that property insurers have argued drive up costs. The measure eliminates what are known as “one-way attorney fees,” which property insurers have maintained encourage litigation.

“We’re getting at what I believe is the root cause of the problem,” Senate Banking and Insurance Chairman Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican who is an insurance agent and who sponsored the measure, said during a committee meeting Tuesday.

Critics, however, said the change will hurt the ability of homeowners to fight insurers in claims disputes.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, pointed to issues other than litigation that have created insurance problems, such as hurricanes and building on the coast.

“We have allowed the (property insurance) system to become what it is, so let’s just blame the attorneys,” Polsky, a lawyer, said.

The bill passed largely along party lines in the Senate, with most Democrats opposed, and cleared the House along straight partisan lines.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the property-insurance measure Friday, praising steps that lawmakers took to stabilize what the governor called Florida’s “long-turbulent” market.

“We have to create an environment where people want to come in and compete for your business. That’s the only way you’re going to ever have a stable situation,” DeSantis said during a bill-signing event in Fort Myers Beach.

As insurance companies have dropped policies and fled Florida’s troubled market, many policyholders have been forced to seek coverage from state-backed Citizens Property Insurance. Citizens was launched as an insurer of last resort but has ballooned during the past two years to about 1.13 million policies, prompting lawmakers to take steps this week to mitigate the flood of policies.

The property-insurance measure prevents Citizens policyholders from being able to renew coverage if they receive policy offers from private insurers that are within 20 percent of the cost of the Citizens premiums. The measure also phases in a requirement that Citizens customers buy flood insurance – a provision that drew criticism from Democrats who said it could lead to increased costs.

“Right now, you are just pushing Citizens’ customers into the danger zone with very high rates,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said during floor debate Wednesday. “You’re putting flood insurance on them, which you are not requiring for private (insurance) customers, which seems weird to me. I’m just worried that when you do that, you are going to push people into dire economic situations.”

The special session dealing largely with insurance was the second time this year that lawmakers convened to deal with the issue – and DeSantis said Friday that insurance legislation is likely to surface again during the 2023 session starting in March.

But for the foreseeable future, lawmakers, insurers and consumers will be in a wait-and-see posture to determine if the changes can bring down rates and make the market more friendly.

“Private carriers, hopefully and I believe they will, will be thriving, come back and want to bring capital to this market. National carriers will want to come back to this market and participate. That drives opportunity. That drives competition, which will drive rates down,” Boyd said this week.

Teeing up relief

DeSantis also this week signed two other measures that came from the special session, aimed at providing $751.5 million for people and communities recovering from hurricanes and savings to frequent toll-road users.

The toll-road legislation (SB-6A) was signed by DeSantis Thursday. The $500 million expansion of a current rebate program will take effect Jan. 1 and remain in place for a year.

It will provide 50 percent credits to motorists with personal SunPass and other Florida transponder accounts in each month they record 35 or more toll-road trips, with the first credits slated to appear on statements in February.

DeSantis called the measure the beginning of efforts to tap record state budget reserves to offer tax relief.

“When your surplus gets too big, it’s like, OK, we need to get this back to the taxpayer,” the governor said.

The other bill (SB 4-A) focuses on spending to help people and communities hammered in recent months by Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole. DeSantis put his signature on the measure on Friday along with the property-insurance measure.

The bill includes allocating $350 million to the Florida Division of Emergency Management to match Federal Emergency Management Agency public-assistance grants; $150 million to the Florida Housing Finance Corp. to assist property owners and renters with housing repairs; and $100 million to beach-erosion projects.

The measure also allows homeowners whose properties were uninhabitable for at least 30 days after Ian or Nicole to get refunds and breaks on their property taxes.

Moving on

A day after the Legislature wrapped its special session, Florida Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier submitted his resignation to DeSantis.

Altmaier, who made the resignation effective Dec. 28, has been Florida’s top insurance regulator since 2016 – overseeing the market during a time of turmoil. The letter did not detail his future plans.

“Under your leadership, we have worked with the Florida Legislature to meet historic challenges with historic reforms, we have come together to respond to catastrophes, and we’ve implemented rules and regulations that have safe guarded Florida’s insurance consumers while keeping our insurance markets viable,” Altmaier wrote in the letter to DeSantis.

Some lawmakers have been critical of the Office of Insurance Regulation’s oversight of the industry and questioned Altmaier this week about issues such as providing data and monitoring insurance companies.

“What do you think will be announced first: The next insurance company leaves Florida’s collapsing market or his new high paying job in the insurance industry?” House Minority Office spokesman Jackson Peel said in a Twitter post Thursday after the resignation became public.

Asked during the bill-signing event Friday about Altmaier’s departure, DeSantis said the opening is a “great opportunity” for “talented people.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Ron DeSantis this week signed measures aimed at stabilizing the state’s troubled property-insurance system, helping support communities ravaged by recent hurricanes and providing financial breaks for frequent toll-road users.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Republicans in the Legislature prioritized giving insurance companies what they wanted instead of giving hard-working Floridians relief from paying the highest property insurance premiums in the country.” – House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.

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