Saturday, October 14, 2006

Florida's Most Important Race

Too little public attention has been directed to the one statewide race which is certain to have the most immediate effect on all our lives: the election of a new Chief Financial Officer for the state of Florida.
If there's one name to remember when you step into the voting booth November 7, it's Alex Sink, candidate for state CFO.

Most of the state's press coverage about the upcoming Florida elections has focused on two high-profile races for U.S. Senator and Governor, both of which are looking pretty non-competitive at this point. Incumbent Bill Nelson (D-Eighty Percent Brave) appears far ahead of the Katherine Harris train wreck (R-Screwball). And for governor, Charlie Crist (R-Closet) leads Tom Jim [HT to Anonymous] Davis (D-Laconic) in all polls by sizeable margins.

While those two contests are important, unlike the CFO job neither of them is likely to have much immediate effect on the lives of Florida homeowners and businesses. With all the hoopla over those two races, however, too little public attention has been directed to the one statewide race which is certain to have the most immediate effect on all our lives: the election of a new Chief Financial Officer for the state of Florida.

The CFO's Job

Created by a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998, the state CFO position combined the state cabinet offices of Treasurer and Comptroller into a single elective office. The CFO has direct responsibility for the reorganized Department of Financial Services.

Among other things, that department oversees all of Florida's insurance acvitivites including hurricane insurance company regulation, rate approvals, insurance consumer protection, and a wide variety of insurance policy initiatives. Along with other state cabinet officers, the CFO also has a vote on the Insurance Commissioner and administers a number of other state financial activities from contracting for goods and services to consumer protection in matters of insurance coverage and adjusting practices.

In many ways, in fact, the CFO position is the most important administrative position in state government, the Governor's office included. Like several other southern states, the Florida Constitutional system ensures a "weak" governor who often can be check-mated by independently-elected "cabinet" officers. But the CFO has a grip on everybody's purse strings.

Accordingly, we can think of no other statewide elective office likely to play a larger role in the daily lives of every homeowner and business in Florida. Hurricane insurance rates are skyrocketing. Ever-increasing insurance company rates are driving away too many condo, home, and business owners; rate volatility is contributing to an unhealthy real estate market; and the insurance crisis threatens to leave those home- and business-owners who remain in Florida uninsured when the next storm devastates Florida.

The Candidates

So, who is on the ballot next month for state CFO? As it happens, the choice presents a stark contrast of skills and experience. Essentially, the race comes down to this: Should we elect a politician or a real financial expert to manage Florida's far-flung finances?

The pol is Tom Lee (R-Brandon), currently president of the Florida state senate. He's a home builder who went into politics eight years ago. Now he's term-limited in his current position as a state senator, so he's shifted his hopes higher up on the political ladder. Giving him a major boost with financial contributions are many of the very same insurance interests the state CFO is supposed to regulate.

So much for term limits, eh? "Stop me before I vote for him again" laws don't work very well if the same names keep popping up on election year ballots time after time, even if they're printed on a different line, and they keep sticking a hand out for corporate contributions.

Covering the first televised debate between the two CFO candidates, the St. Petersburg Times' Alisa Ulferts reported:
"Lee, a veteran of the Legislature and a home builder, is running on his legislative record. He spoke of his role in crafting legislation this year intended to curb the rise of property insurance rates... ."
Check your latest insurance bill to see just how effective Lee was at that. The truth is, like Charlie Crist he's proposing only more study panels and unenforeable orders that auto insurance companies get into the wind insurance business.

Nevertheless, yesterday the Tampa Tribune endorsed all Republicans running for statewide office, including Tom Lee. Along the way, however, even that reliably Republican newspaper had to admit that his opponent, Alex Sink, possesses "knowledge of the financial world, management expertise and business assignments in all corners of the state. She has never run for office but is clearly capable of operating at the Cabinet level."

Alex Sink (D-Thonotosassa) served for 24 years as Florida President of Bank of America. She's no stranger to government, either. Former Governor Lawton Chiles appointed Alex Sink to two important state government reform commissions, the Commission on Government Acountability and the Commission on Education.

She's also been vice-chair of Florida TaxWatch chaired the "Take Stock in Children", a highly credible charity that awards low-income children college and vocational scholarships, runs a volunteer mentoring program, and encourages parental involvement though a variety of training and mentoring programs. Ms. Sink also has been an active member of the Nature Conservancy, the Beth El Farm Workers Ministry, and various charities including United Way of Hillsborough County.

Endorsement: Alex Sink for CFO
This week, the Palm Beach Post endorsed Alex Sink for CFO. "Democrat Alex Sink has the better qualifications to be Florida's chief financial officer and she also has the better argument," the paper editorialized:
"This year's property insurance bill from the Legislature, Ms. Sink says, "was totally inadequate."

"That bill came on the watch of Senate President Tom Lee, who is Ms. Sink's opponent in the Nov. 7 election. In many years, the Republican and Tampa Bay-area home builder would be the better candidate. He's hardly a bad candidate this year. Sen. Lee has spent 10 years in Tallahassee as a hardworking, reasoned, mostly moderate legislator. But the chief financial officer is the closest thing Floridians have to a vote on insurance regulation, and what the Legislature produced on insurance during the two years of Sen. Lee's presidency hasn't dealt with the crisis Floridians face."
Ms. Sink also has proposed much more aggressive, and creative, solutions to the insurance crisis. As she explains in detail on her campaign web site, in addition to strenghtening the Florida Catastrophe Fund and leverging a drop in reinsurance rates, Sink proposes "to call all of my counterparts in coastal states from Texas to Maine and work with them to create a regional catastrophic fund that helps spread the risk of tropical weather and makes it easier for us to attract private insurers back to Florida."

That sounds a lot like our own idea for entering into an Interstate Compact among hurricane-vulnerable states to spread the risk and lower insurance costs. Sooner or later, the U.S. Congress will have to create a national emergency disaster fund covering the contingency of another Katrina or 9-11 or San Francisco earthquake. But everyone knows that isn't likely to be sooner.

Florida can't wait. Nor does subsidizing private sector insurance offer a realistic hope. Too often privatization in Florida has become just another way of absconding with insurance ratepayer and tax payer funds to bulk up the profit margins of greedy private insurance companies.

Instead, as Sink proposes, the state can best help the private sector and at the same time use taxypayer funds most prudently by expanding the state's involvement in providing reinsurance, and reducing the cost of re-insurance... to lower rates."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's *Jim* Davis