Florida needs a hero. In the midst of a crushing national recession, State Farm Florida, the state’s largest property insurer, has received permission to raise its rates by an average of 18%.
Just a few short years ago, when State Farm was seeking a similar property rate hike, one state legislator stood tall and proclaimed the importance of industry regulation when he noted that “no citizens will have to fall victim to this kind of an outrageous rate hike until the state has the opportunity to assess it.”
That legislator was Senator Jeff Atwater, Florida’s current Chief Financial Officer.
In 2007 and again in 2008, then Senator Atwater sponsored legislation that made it more difficult for insurers to quickly raise rates on struggling homeowners while at the same time increasing fines for insurers who violated state law and otherwise took advantage of Florida’s policyholders. One of the highlights of a successful senate career was his sponsorship of a bill dubbed the Homeowners Bill of Rights. Some in the media went so far as to call him an insurance crusader. In many ways, it was this pro-consumer support that carried Senator Atwater into his current cabinet position as the State’s Chief Financial Officer.
The office of the Chief Financial Officer is a fairly recent addition to the cabinet, and is made up of 13 divisions, including the Division of Consumer Services, the Division of Insurance Agent and Agency Services, the Division of Insurance Fraud and the Office of the Consumer Insurance Advocate. The CFO also has some oversight over the Insurance Commissioner. In many ways, the job of the CFO is to act as the steward of the state’s complex insurance market, charged with protecting the state’s roughly 8 million policyholders and the insurance industry alike.
Given his past pro-consumer bona fides and his new position as insurance regulator-in-chief, you might think that CFO Atwater would be the industries worst nightmare – instead, he has been silent while his constituents have their rates raised and coverage benefits taken away.
Indeed, a perfect storm has arrived in the state capitol.
A brazenly business-minded Governor has joined forces with the most pro-industry legislature in recent memory to usher in a new age of insurance deregulation. The result has been a supermarket sweep for the insurance industry – nothing is sacred.
In stark contrast to his vocal pro-consumer years in the Senate, CFO Atwater has managed to stay silent on some of Florida’s most pressing issues – issues in which his office has a direct interest.
Jeff Atwater’s silence on the sweeping insurance legislation currently making its way through the legislature is deafening.
In an October 2008 Miami Herald story, Jeff Atwater called himself “the insurance watchdog.” Now, just when Florida’s policyholders need him most, the watchdog appears to be fast asleep.