Florida's insurance cops are asleep on the beat, private school vouchers are paying for TVs and Disney tickets, and another billionaire got his way in Tallahassee
Your periodic reminder that local news still matters.
This is Seeking Rents, a newsletter and podcast devoted to producing original journalism — and lifting up the journalism of others — that examines the many ways that businesses influence public policy across Florida, written by Jason Garcia. Seeking Rents is free to all. But please consider a voluntary paid subscription, if you can afford one, to help support our work.
A few days after Hurricane Idalia struck Florida, the head of the state Chamber of Commerce had a column published in the Tampa Bay Times praising Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature for all the changes they’ve made recently to the state’s property insurance laws.
It’s no surprise that the Florida Chamber of Commerce loves what the governor and lawmakers have done on insurance. They’ve made it much harder to sue insurance companies that unfairly deny or delay claims. They’re raising prices on many Floridians who get their home insurance from the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and kicking some people out entirely.
Insurance companies have been lobbying for many of these changes for more than a decade, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce represents the interests of those companies. Just one example: The chamber hosts an annual “Insurance Summit” in which the lead sponsors include State Farm, a reinsurance company that State Farm is invested in, and an insurance trade group that State Farm helps lead.
But Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson also pointed out that DeSantis and the Legislature have given state regulators new tools to crack down on insurance companies that don’t play fair. “Any bad actors in the insurance industry will now face increased oversight and stiffer penalties if they do not hold up their end of the bargain,” Wilson wrote.
That’s great — if we can trust Florida’s insurance regulators to truly police the industry. And a recent Tampa Bay Times story suggests these cops are asleep on the beat.
When insurance companies fail in Florida, the state is supposed to perform “insolvency reports.” These are financial autopsies mean to help everyone understand what went wrong and how to prevent future failures.
But after an insurance company known as Sawgrass Mutual collapsed, the Times found that state officials failed to do any meaningful analysis at all. They didn’t hire forensic accountants. They ignored evidence that might have contradicted the insurance industry’s lobbying agenda.
The elected official ultimately responsible for these insolvency reports is Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. And this isn’t the first time he’s turned in the equivalent of a third-grade book report, according to the Times.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce loves Jimmy Patronis, too. So much that it has given him more than $100,000.
A link to the full Times story is below. And so are links to few other important Florida stories from the past few weeks.
Read: Florida report on insurance failure raises more questions than answers (Tampa Bay Times)
Taxpayer vouchers for TVs, treadmills and Disney tickets
Sticking with the Tampa Bay Times, the paper reported this week that some parents receiving taxpayer-financed vouchers to pay for private schools or homeschooling can now spend some of the money on things like 55-inch televisions, home treadmills, and tickets to Disney World.
The revelation comes just after DeSantis and Florida lawmakers expanded Florida’s private-school voucher program to all families, regardless of income level or whether they ever intended to enroll their kids in public schools. The legislation also loosened the law around how families can spend these $8,000 stipends, which had previously been restricted to school tuition and transportation costs.
Read: Florida school vouchers can pay for TVs, kayaks and theme parks. Is that OK? (Tampa Bay Times)
Climate change is leading to canceled insurance policies, too
Sticking with insurance, the Washington Post reports at least five major American property insurances — including Allstate, Nationwide and Berkshire Hathaway — have told regulators that climate change and increasingly extreme weather patterns are prompting them to end coverage in some disaster-prone parts of the country or to cancel coverage entirely for weather events like hurricanes.
This is something insurance companies are increasingly talking about in public. Seeking Rents had a piece last year noting that executives at several large insurance and reinsurance companies had told investors that they were raising rates in part to compensate for risks posed by climate change.
There’s obviously still a lot of scientific uncertainty about the precise impacts of climate change on hurricanes. Among other things, it’s hard to isolate climate-specific impacts from other factors that can also influence hurricane frequency and strength — like clean-air laws that have cut the amount of aerosol in the atmosphere and multi-decadal changes in ocean currents. Some DeSantis administration staffers have tried to exploit this uncertainty by using it to imply that there is no evidence at all of climate impacts.
But scientists at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory are very confident that climate change is leading to hurricanes that produce more storm surge (because of higher sea levels). They’re also reasonably confident that climate change is making storms stronger and wetter, too.
And insurance company executives and investors obviously believe it.
Read: Home insurers cut natural disasters from policies as climate risks grow (The Washington Post)
Read: Global Warming and Hurricanes: An Overview of Current Research Results (NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory)
How a bill becomes law
Bloomberg had a revealing story recently about how billionaire and Republican megadonor Ken Griffin was able to influence a controversial new law DeSantis pushed this session attempting to stop Chinese people from purchasing real-estate in Florida.
Inside the DeSantis money-raising machine
Lastly, The Washington Post had an explosive story a few weeks ago providing a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how Ron DeSantis has systematically squeezed the state’s biggest lobbyists and corporations for donations during his tenure in Tallahassee.
Read it. But also make sure to read the original story in the Tampa Bay Times, which first broke part of this behavior out into the open way back in 2019.
Read: ‘I could sell golf’: How DeSantis and aides courted lobbyists for campaign cash (The Washington Post)
Read: Ron DeSantis’ political team planned $25K golf games, $250K ‘intimate gatherings,’ memos say (Tampa Bay Times)