Insurance companies shower Fla. politicians with donations to get rate hikes
By Mark Hollis South Florida Sun-Sentinel
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's teetering property insurance industry got what it wanted this year from the state: new power to raise consumer prices. The Legislature crafted the industry incentives as insurers poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into election campaigns of lawmakers, state political parties and candidates for statewide offices. Insurers now can automatically raise prices for homeowner coverage 10 percent without any state review. And to make Florida even more enticing to property insurers, legislators tossed in $250 million in loans for insurers willing to expand in this state.The changes have been hailed across the country by the insurance industry as a big help to do business in a hurricane-battered state.Consumer activists say it was a giveaway to an industry that already gets its way in Tallahassee.Analysts say the legislation was not a surprise, given the industry's consistent political donations.``It's always hard to say that the money bought something specifically, but the money certainly buys the industry access to decision-makers,'' said Sue O'Connell, research director for the Institute on Money and State Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group based in Montana. ``It opens doors and allows them [insurers] access in a way that the typical citizen may not have. It also seems pretty clear from the way that industry distributes its donations that Florida is a pretty important state to the insurance companies.''Since 1996, the property insurance industry has given $11.2 million to Florida candidates and state political parties, with roughly three of every four dollars to Republicans, according to research by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.The 2006 campaigns already have received at least $1.7 million from the property insurance industry, state records show.O'Connell has examined property insurance industry campaign contributions across the country over three election cycles -- 2000, 2002, and 2004 -- and found Florida is vital to the property insurance market, judging by where the industry spends its campaign donations.She said that in 2004, Florida ranked No. 10 among all states in total contributions from political donors. But in candidate contributions from the property insurance industry, she said, Florida politicians ranked second in the nation, behind only California that year.Most donations to GOPThe insurance industry has given the bulk of its money to the party in power, the Sun-Sentinel has found. At least $4 million has been given in the last decade to the Republican Party of Florida, mainly from industry trade groups and associations but also from insurers, their lobbyists and executives.By contrast, the Florida Democratic Party received slightly more than $1 million.The contributions represent a small fraction of what's given each year to state parties and candidates in Florida. Other industries, such as telecommunications businesses, home builders and real estate agents, give more. Sun-Sentinel research found that about 2 percent of what's been given to all Florida campaigns and state parties since 1996 -- or $11.2 million of more than $557 million -- can be reported as having come from the property insurance industry.Campaign finance analysts say the Florida insurance industry still packs a political wallop. That power was on display May 16 when Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law the 156-page property insurance bill that guarantees higher policyholder costs and bigger insurance industry profits.``This is the most significant, comprehensive property insurance legislation that has been enacted since Hurricane Andrew,'' said Len Brevik, the national executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents. He said it's ``precisely the kind of innovation'' that Congress should mimic.Critics call it a politically timid and anti-consumer answer to what ails Florida's insurance market. The law has been criticized in recent weeks by Democratic candidates for governor and some Republicans, such as state Rep. Randy Johnson of Winter Garden, a candidate to be Florida's chief financial officer.``The insurance crisis has crept on the kitchen tables of Floridians and they are mad about it and responding to it. ...,'' Johnson said of reaction to increased rates. ``It is about insurance company greed, plain and simple.''While some candidates criticize the law as an industry sellout, Florida's top insurance regulators, such as state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, a Republican running for governor, say it was just the start of a solution. His 2006 gubernatorial campaign has received at least $379,000 in donations from the insurance industry. Only the Republican and Democratic state parties and Bush's gubernatorial campaigns have received more money from the state's insurers than Gallagher has taken in for his 2006 race for governor.He also has received at least $369,000 in industry donations during previous campaigns for other state offices, including the one he holds.