TALLAHASSEE — As St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes quickly got the support needed to poll lawmakers on the need for a special session to address growing property insurance costs, Gov. Ron DeSantis endorsed the effort.
But DeSantis, who didn’t include insurance in the call for a special session on redistricting that takes place next week, said Monday that lawmakers first need to reach a deal on reforms that could build on changes to the insurance industry made last year.
While the House still hasn’t shown a willingness to accept more aggressive measures pitched in the 2022 regular session by the Senate, DeSantis said during a press conference at the AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa that lawmakers should return to Tallahassee “once we have something that will go.”
Brandes, who pushed the Legislature to deal with problems in the property insurance industry, on Friday distributed a “template letter” to lawmakers intended to begin a polling process to force a special session on the issue.
“I absolutely support what Sen. Brandes is doing,” DeSantis said Monday. “I think it’s just a matter of, as you remember, it kind of fell apart at the end of the session. So, we just want to make sure that we have a product that will pass muster.”
But Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who supports Brandes’ effort, was quick to accuse DeSantis of trying to garner support from the public after he “ignored” the issue during the regular session.
“Now that it’s become politically dangerous for him to be silent on it, he is now speaking in support of a special session,” Eskamani told reporters during a conference call Monday. “I think it’s important to stress that we had 60 days where we could have managed and addressed these real-life issues. But instead, his (DeSantis’) priority bills, which were all culture wars, are what took up all the time.”
Under law, Brandes would first have to get 20 percent of the Legislature — 32 of the 160 members — to file support for a special session with the Department of State.
Brandes has asked lawmakers to send him the letters of support, with his office electronically submitting the gathered signatures. By early Monday afternoon, Brandes’ legislative assistant Vanessa Thompson said the 20 percent mark was already “surpassed.”
Once the letters are formally submitted, the state department has seven days to poll lawmakers. A session would be held if it is supported by three-fifths of the House and three-fifths of the Senate.
“With hurricane season approaching June 1, it is imperative that we do everything within our power to ensure the people we represent can obtain insurance coverage at a reasonable price,” Brandes, who will leave office this fall because of term limits, wrote to House and Senate members on Friday.
DeSantis has said he expected lawmakers to eventually return to Tallahassee, likely after the November election, to address the property insurance issue.
On Monday, the governor said the need for lawmakers to address current conditions is growing.
“We’ve got to be honest with people. We’re in a big period of inflation, so all this stuff is gonna go up,” DeSantis said. “But, on the property insurance in particular, clearly, you know, we have dysfunctions in that market that could be fixed. You’re already seeing different insurers go out. We need to have a vibrant market where people are able to get policies at an affordable rate. So, I thank him (Brandes) for what he’s doing. I think we will get there.”
Attempts in recent years to use the polling process on other issues have not led to special sessions.
Appearing with DeSantis in Tampa on Monday, Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican who was chairman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, was optimistic about the outlook for a special session on insurance.
“We’ll get there, I’m sure,” Boyd said.
In 2021, lawmakers approved changes that included a new formula to limit fees of attorneys who represent homeowners in lawsuits against insurers and a reduction from three years to two years in the time to file claims. They also passed a proposal aimed at preventing roofing contractors from advertising to spur homeowners to file claims, though a federal court has blocked that part of the law on free-speech grounds.
The law also allowed larger rate increases for customers of the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which often charges less than private carriers.
But many private insurers in recent months have sought hefty rate increases and dropped customers to reduce financial risks. That has led to thousands of homeowners a week turning to Citizens for coverage, with Citizens’ total number of policies expected to top 1 million by the end of the year.
During the legislative session that ended last month, the Senate wanted to take a more aggressive approach than the House in trying to bolster private insurers.
For example, the Senate proposed allowing new deductibles of up to 2 percent on roof-damage claims — an outgrowth of complaints by insurers that questionable, if not fraudulent, roof claims are driving up costs. As an example, under the Senate proposal, a homeowner with $300,000 in overall coverage could have faced a $6,000 deductible to replace a damaged roof.
But the House rejected the idea, which would have led to increased out-of-pocket costs for homeowners who need to replace damaged roofs.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has said the 2021 changes need more time to take hold.
Brandes wants a special session to address issues such as Citizens, the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund and providing a “financing mechanism for insurers to access if the capital markets are not an option.” He called for making “significant property insurance reforms in order to create a sustainable environment for Florida homeowners.”