TALLAHASSEE — With no debate, the Florida Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that aims to bring down the cost of flood insurance by encouraging more private companies to offer policies in the state.
But House leaders have been hung up on a provision that gives homeowners the ability to choose their level of coverage, making it unclear if the effort will make it into law this year.
Even if it does, the effort has been considered a “Hail Mary” pass carrying no guarantees that private insurers will be significantly less expensive for Floridians.
Senators passed the bill (SB 542), sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, by a vote of 36-0, sending it to the House.
That chamber has several related bills, with one of them (HB 879) having received two unanimous votes. That measure does not contain a specific provision allowing flexibility in coverage.
Brandes wants to give consumers the option to insure only a home’s mortgage value, for instance, or just the main structure and not outlying structures such as carports.
“The bill emphasizes consumer choice and will let us control our own destiny in this critical market,” Brandes said in a written statement.
Senate Republican Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, echoed the flexibility argument and bashed Congress, even as she tries to join it.
Benacquisto is running for the southwest Florida seat recently vacated by Trey Radel.
The Senate bill “helps create private market solutions to a government created problem and allows flexible and affordable options to consumers,” she said.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, wasn’t available for questions Wednesday after a House session.
Lawmakers were spurred to action in the past few months as large rate hikes loomed in the National Flood Insurance Program, which is backed by the federal government.
The 2012 Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act could have dramatically increased premiums for thousands of households, by many thousands of dollars.
Brandes has repeated the example of a Florida coastal home bought in August 2012 that pays a yearly premium of $500. That premium would have risen to $4,500 after rate increases. Other premiums could increase three to ten times what they were.
Earlier this month, Congress voted to hold back the planned increases and President Obama signed the measure into law.
That relief is sure to be temporary as the national program is $24 billion short and needs to start charging actuarially sound rates, meaning total premiums collected should be more than total claims paid out every year.
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In other action Wednesday, Florida senators passed a statewide ban on collecting biometric data from public school children, but gave Pinellas County schools until the end of the 2014-15 school year to use another student identification system.
With no debate, the Senate passed the bill (SB 188) by a 38-1 vote, with Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens the lone “no” vote.
The measure travels to the House, where a strongly supported companion measure is heading to the floor.
Representatives for Gov. Rick Scott have said in committees that he supports the bill, suggesting that Pinellas schools may have to mothball their palm scanners and related technology, which cost about $155,000.
State Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, has pushed the ban this year. She believes that children’s identifying information could be stolen out of computers and used for identity theft.
But industry experts have said they’re unaware of any identity theft cases in recent years in which someone has used a wrongly taken fingerprint, iris scan or other identifier.
The schools are on spring break this week and administrators could not be reached. Art Dunham, the director of food services, did not respond to a message left on his mobile phone.
Dunham previously told the Tribune that biometric scanners have been used for four years without incident. Parents can opt out of having their kids use the scanners but few do.
With only 30 minutes to feed more than 1,000 students in some schools, the technology ensures they have time to sit and eat, Dunham said. Each scan takes 1-2 seconds.
The system is not connected to the Internet, he said, but uses a closed system with secure servers locked in a room in the district’s administration building.