Insurance Crisis Dominates CFO Debate in Lakeland

LAKELAND -

Ask anyone on the street who they plan on backing for the state's CFO job, and you're more likely to get a blank look than a reply. But Florida's chief financial officer affects everyone living in the state.

Own a home? The CFO is in charge of managing the state's roiling insurance market. The position is also the comptroller, treasurer and fire Marshall, all rolled into one. And it's one of only three cabinet positions remaining that provides some balance to the power of the governor.

Not surprisingly, the state of the state's insurance industry dominated the questions at the Cleveland Heights Golf and Country Club.

Two of the top aspirants to the job came to Lakeland before the Polk County Tiger Bay Club. Democrat Adelaide 'Alex' Sink and Republican Randy Johnson say they're both fed up with insurance companies getting their way in Tallahassee.

Johnson says insurance companies get to decide whether storm damage is from wind and rain - which they have to pay for - or flooding, which they don't.

JOHNSON: Where we have ended up now is next to the abyss. We have given away consumer's rights. There is no public counsel. Insurance companies are allowed to raise their rates without talking to the regulator, up to a certain point. An insurance company could go into your house today - a storm-ravaged house, I've watched this happen - and decide whether or not to file a claim. There's no arbitration.

Johnson faces a primary challenge from outgoing State Senate President Tom Lee, who did not attend the debate. Sink is running unopposed on the Democratic side, and says Tallahassee could use some fresh ideas.

SINK: Why is the insurance regulator allowing us to have 80 or 100 percent rate increases? As your chief financial officer, I'm going up there, I'm going to take my background and my experience, I'm going to up there and ask some darn tough questions of our insurance regulator.

Johnson says the key to solving the state's homeowner's insurance crisis is encouraging competition. That means removing roadblocks in the way of small companies that want to enter the statewide market.

JOHNSON: If you sell homeowner's insurance anywhere in the continental United States, and you don't want to sell it in Florida - you want to redline our state - then I think as CFO, you ought to be encouraged, cajoled, use a carrot, use a stick, to sell that product here. And if you don't want to sell homeowner's insurance in the state of Florida, then I will encourage you to take all of your profitable lines and go sell them somewhere else. Don't cherry-pick us.

Sink says the insurance crisis could end up ruining the state's economy. And someone without any ties to the industry may provide some needed balance.

SINK: We have had one-party government for the last number of years. This year, there are three open cabinet positions. It's time that we start renewing debate and asking those tough questions, and asking why are we doing things this way? How did we get into this insurance mess without our leaders paying attention?

Johnson is a state representative from Celebration in Osceola County. He graduated from Robinson High School while his father was stationed in Tampa. He later chaired the opposition to the expansion of gambling in Florida as Chairman of No Casinos, Inc.

After the debate, Johnson said keeping a lid on property taxes is high on his list of things to do, but keeping tabs on insurance companies would be his first priority.

JOHNSON: We need somebody up there on Florida's cabinet who is going to start pushing back a little bit on insurance companies. They are taking advantage of Floridians during a crisis. And frankly, that's what I call gouging, and they need to stop it.

This is Sink's first run for statewide office, even though she was at the side of her husband Bill McBride, when he ran for governor. She rose to become Florida's highest-ranking female bank president at NationsBank, which later became Bank of America. The Thonotosassa resident has served as vice chair of Florida TaxWatch and on the Commission on Education for former Gov. Lawton Chiles.

SINK: I think the fact that I have not been in politics at this point in Florida's history is a huge asset. I believe we need a fresh look, fresh experience. I have a fantastic 26-year banking career backing me up, but I'll say more importantly, I'm the team mom for the cross-country team at Armwood High School. I've also been serving a number of charities and non-profit organizations. I've been right on the ground in Central Florida. I'm going to bring a different way of solving the problems we have in Tallahassee.

Many outside observers say next to the governor, the CFO is the most powerful office in the state.

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