On February 7, 2011, the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee met in Tallahassee to discuss SB 408. This was supposed to be the meeting at which the full bill would be voted on. However, it soon became clear that the bill was too complicated to make it through this meeting in time. The meeting was scheduled from 10:15am – 12:15pm. When the committee got to the portion of the agenda dealing with SB 408, they began where they left off last week – debating the numerous amendments being offered by Senator Mike Fasano. If you read this blog regularly, you know that Senator Fasano is often a voice in the dark for consumers on this committee. As Fasano began to go through his amendments, it was clear that his pro-consumer amendments were going to fail. In fact, several of the amendments were compromises between the industry and consumer positions. Nevertheless, they were consistently voted down. The St. Petersburg Times describes the testy exchange between Senators Alexander, Fasano and Negron. My favorite part of the meeting:

Things got testy when Fasano’s amendment requiring that homeowners receive an engineer’s report after repairs are made came up. Sen. J.D. Alexander argued against the amendment, starting out by speaking broadly about the problems with sinkhole insurance claims and then charging that Fasano’s amendment was probably written by a plaintiff’s attorney.

Fasano shot back that he didn’t need to be lectured on the sinkhole insurance issue, and wondered why nothing benefiting homeowners was included in the bill. "I could easily suggest this whole bill before us was written by the insurance industry," he said.

Touché Senator Fasano! As the meeting proceeded, and it got closer to 12, it was clear that a vote on the bill would be difficult. At about 12:04, a motion was made to end testimony at 12:10 and to vote at 12:14 (leaving 4 minutes for the Senators to debate the most sweeping insurance legislation in years). After this motion passed, the committee began to take testimony.

This is where it got very interesting. The first person to testify was a man from Pasco County who was a member of the United States Military. He described the damages that his home suffered from a sinkhole and the fact that USAA refused to pay anything because he “didn’t meet the definition.” At this point, Senator Olreich began a line of questioning that can only be described as demeaning. Asking the serviceman…how did you get USAA?; Who qualifies for USAA?; So everyone can’t get USAA right?: I don’t have USAA, etc. I still do not know what the point of that line of question was, but I do know that it came across as discourteous to everyone in the room. It was at this point that the Senators decided to temporarily postpone voting on the bill until the next meeting.

The next person to testify was a woman from Key West who described her nightmare of water intrusion and wind damage. She got emotional as she described her situation and the fact that she still had severe damage from the 2004/2005 hurricane seasons because her insurance company had not fully compensated her.

The last person to offer testimony was Michelle Beach from Key West who represented FIRM (Fair Insurance Rates In Monroe) and was told she had 3 minutes to testify. She spoke for about 1 minute before she was told that the meeting was about to end. She fired back and asked if she had been given 3 minutes or 1; the senators allowed her to continue for a few minutes before the meeting was adjourned.

I give that background to make this point – public testimony matters! There were several newspaper articles describing what happened at the meeting. There is no way that the press would have written about a Senate committee meeting in early February if that testimony had not been offered. Keep in mind, only three people were allowed to testify and it still had an effect. There were other people lined up to testify but they were not even allowed to speak. If we are going to have any shot at slowing down SB 408, we must engage our elected officials and get the press to pay attention. Judging from Monday’s meeting, we might be closer than we think.

At this point, the next meeting is not scheduled but I think it will take place the morning of February 22, in Tallahassee. If you can make it up there, or if you can get others to make it up there, it does make a difference!