Flood insurance rate hike is awash in party politics

click to enlarge A 10News shot on flooding in the Shore Acres section of St. Petersburg following Tropical Storm Debby in June, 20120. - wtsp.com
wtsp.com
A 10News shot on flooding in the Shore Acres section of St. Petersburg following Tropical Storm Debby in June, 20120.

click to enlarge A 10News shot on flooding in the Shore Acres section of St. Petersburg following Tropical Storm Debby in June, 20120. - wtsp.com
wtsp.com
A 10News shot on flooding in the Shore Acres section of St. Petersburg following Tropical Storm Debby in June, 20120.
  • wtsp.com
  • A 10News shot of flooding in the Shore Acres section of St. Petersburg following Tropical Storm Debby in June, 2012.

A spike in federal flood insurance rates for about 70,000 policy holders in the Tampa Bay area is not a partisan issue. The Republican homeowner in Shore Acres will get hit just as hard as the retired Democrat who owns a condo on Indian Rocks Beach.

But whether Congress chooses to act swiftly to delay or roll back premium increases, which take effect Tuesday, Oct. 1, is being drawn along party lines.

“My legislation to fix this is being blocked right now by partisan politics and those who oppose a completely different bill, the health care bill," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, said Monday. "So what we’re trying to do is to get bipartisan support to join us to pass a clean bill as soon as we can to delay those rate increases.”

A lot is at stake for Florida, if Congress refuses to halt rate increases for policy holders in the National Flood Insurance Program. There are more property owners in Florida with the federally subsidized insurance policies than in any other state. Pinellas, Miami-Dade and Lee counties top the list.

Pinellas County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov told homeowners last week that it seems inevitable some homes will be forced into foreclosure by higher rates. Hundreds of policy holders are retirees or disabled, living on fixed incomes.

Yet Florida’s congressional delegation is divided about what to do. Nelson has sponsored an amendment to defund changes to the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which aims to increase premium costs to reflect "true flood risk." The amendment is attached to a larger House Appropriations bill that includes health spending.

Nelson pressed state GOP leaders into action, writing a letter to Gov. Rick Scott and state CFO Jeff Atwater. “Out of concern for numerous Floridians that will be affected by these rate increases, I respectfully request your help with Republican members to get the votes to pass such a measure.”

Yet U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican-Florida, has made little attempt to slow or stop the reforms. Nelson's amendment may be tied up in the larger debate over the government's role in health spending. But Rubio and other Republicans philosophically oppose keeping the subsidies through the 45-year-old federal flood insurance program.

The National Flood Insurance Program dates back to 1968, and is a relic from the Great Society era of American politics, when government directed spending to solve domestic problems. Rubio's silence about delaying the insurance changes may be more about ending big government's role in providing subsidies and moving to a market-based system.

Rubio suggested in a letter last week that a delay to implementing reforms will not fix the National Flood Insurance Program, now deep in debt from paying out claims from catastrophic storms, including Katrina and Sandy. He is calling for a long-term “sensible” solution and said that he “welcomes feedback” from Florida leaders.

So where does that leave policy holders in the Tampa Bay area? Their properties may not be underwater. Yet many homeowners are at risk of drowning in debt. As it stands now, 50,000 property owners in Pinellas County face premium increases, which go into effect Tuesday. About 22,000 policy holders in Hillsborough County also will see rate changes. Premiums may rise by as much as 25 percent for older homes in high-risk areas, even if the owners have never filed a claim or experienced flooding.

Said Dubov: “These are scary times.”

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