Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Questioning Bush

The other day, we noted the observable shift in sentiment about Bush's Iraq war among active military leaders. Today, Los Angeles Times reporters Julian E. Barnes and Doyle McManus report about the same phenomenon:
"Growing numbers of American military officers have begun to privately question a key tenet of U.S. strategy in Iraq — that setting a hard deadline for troop reductions would strengthen the insurgency and undermine efforts to create a stable state."
* * *
"'Deadlines could help ensure that the Iraqi leaders recognize the imperative of coming to grips with the tough decisions they've got to make for there to be progress in the political arena,' said a senior Army officer who has served in Iraq. He asked that his name not be used because he did not want to publicly disagree with the stated policy of the president."
Bush as much as calls any Democrat who makes such a suggestion a traitor to the country. As Robert Parry put it in the Baltimore Sun:
"Bush’s lies also aren’t about petty matters, such as some personal indiscretion or minor misconduct. Rather his dishonesty deals with issues of war and peace, the patriotism of his opponents, and the founding principles of the American Republic.

"They are the kinds of lies and distortions more befitting the leader of a totalitarian state whipping up his followers to go after some perceived enemy than the President of the world’s preeminent democracy seeking an informed debate among the citizenry."
Yet, as the LA Times reporters write, "Some in the military argue that publicizing a timetable for reducing forces is far less damaging to a counterinsurgency campaign than the administration has suggested."

Do you suppose Bush thinks that make them traitors, too?

Dr. Dino On God's Payroll

Up to bat with the latest Pensacola News Journal report about Dr. Dino's tax fraud trial is Nicole Lozare. With the excessive credulity she usually musters for any fantastic fable, Lozare again refers to Hovind, erroneously as we have hinted before, as a "tax protestor." Then she reports without a hint of irony:
"Despite a million-dollar business and speaking engagement earnings of nearly $50,000 a year, Pensacola evangelists Kent and Jo Hovind did not count the money as income.
* * *
Special IRS Agent Scott Schneider testified Monday that the couple denied that they had any income in numerous documents.
* * *
"Kent Hovind, a tax protester, makes a substantial amount of money. Schneider testified that in 2002, the ministry sold more than $1.8 million in Christian merchandise. But Hovind believes he and his employees work for God, are paid by God and, therefore, aren't subject to taxation."
It's difficult to believe Schneider actually testified that Hovind "believes" his own bull. More likely, what agent Schneider testified is that this is what Hovind claimed.

Maybe Lozare was just exhausted. She writes that Schneider was on the witness stand "for nearly eight hours," from which one can assume (because the reporter isn't saying) that the judge is making the lawyers work overtime after a week off due to a defense attorney's illness.

In any event, Hovind's substantial income didn't stop him or his wife from pleading poverty to a local medical establishment:
"'Dr. and Mrs. Kent Hovind do not earn salaries,' wrote Martha Harris, the trust secretary of Creation Science Evangelism to Baptist. 'As health insurance is not provided for this couple, we would appreciate (financial assistance.)'"
That little anecdote reminds us of a line from Edward Albee's great stage play about self-deception, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? One of the house guests, Nick, is explaining to George that he's financially set because he married a woman whose father was a traveling preacher. The preacher collected a fortune from Christian simpletons, he says, "And when he died there was a lot of money."

George asks, slightly mystified, but wasn't that "God's money?"

"No," says Nick, "He spent God's money and saved his own."

City of the Dead

Union Hill Cemetery
(photo by John Williams)

Apropos of Halloween, about a week and a half ago Barrier Island Girl posted an excellent photo-essay on historic St. Michael's Cemetery in downtown Pensacola. The cemetery certainly is worth seeing if you're a history buff and BIG's stunning web photos are worth viewing even if you're not.

The Pensacola area is littered with so many historic cemeteries, marked and unmarked, it might be called "City of the Dead." A few years ago "A Student of New York Institute of Photography" -- said to be known in real life as John Williams -- web-published photographs of a number of these cemeteries. "Student of New York Institute" doubtless has matriculated by now, but luckily the site hasn't. It's still here.

One of the more interesting and forlorn cemeteries "Student" visited is Union Hill. One he didn't is Mount Zion Cemetery, located alongside a railroad track. You're not likely to fine any trick-or-treaters there on All Hallow's Eve. Too scary, even for the dead. The last time we stopped by with a grad student friend who was doing some research, several of the graves had collapsed or were left open after resident bodies were moved -- or perhaps they just crawled out and walked away from the drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes that crowd the area.

A number of other forlorn cemeteries in the Pensacola area have been pinpointed by the intrepid folk at USGenWeb. Among them Pensacola Beach residents, tourists, and campers will remember Chasefield Plantation Cemetery, that odd little fenced-off collection of graves just outside the gates of Ft. Pickens.

We aren't sure if it survived Hurricane Ivan, but you can look for the only cemetery on Pensacola Beach this coming Saturday during the guided "Full Moon Walk" at Ft. Pickens. Access is by foot or boat, only, since the road still hasn't been repaired.

Hickory Ridge, being an early Mississippian aboriginal burial ground, is much older. Archaeologists at the University of West Florida aren't saying exactly where it's located, for obvious reasons, other than it "lies west of Pensacola on a large peninsula that is formed by Perdido and Pensacola Bays."

One cemetery you aren't likely to find on the web is a small, empty block that sits unobtrusively in the midst of a neighborhood of neat, small frame houses on the near north side of Pensacola. To passers-by it looks like three or four undeveloped lots with randomly-scattered mature trees. In fact, it's an old graveyard whose headstones collapsed long ago and were hauled away. Only a very few grave markers, flush with the earth and usually hidden beneath dead leaves, tell the tale. Our grad student friend gave us a snapshot of it. Sadly, Hurricane Ivan buried it along with our house two years ago.

Today seems the right time to point out that one of the lesser-known but persistent challenges facing all of Florida is identifying and preserving abandoned and neglected cemeteries.
"There are literally thousands of abandoned cemeteries in Florida, many of them unknown and forgotten as old homesteads are subdivided and sold off, cemetery operators go out of business, churches are moved, and new property owners are unaware of old burying grounds.
* * *
Maintaining cemeteries that are no longer active is a widespread problem throughout the state. A review by the Task Force on Abandoned and Neglected Cemeteries appointed by the Legislature in 1998 determined that some counties had more than 100 such cemeteries, and that thousands probably remain undocumented and uncared for in the state."
When in Florida, be careful where you tread. You may be walking over someone's final resting place.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Joe Roberts for Congress


Today's PNJ carries one of the few articles the newpaper has printed this election season comparing local incumbent congressman Jeff Miller (R-Chumukla) with his opponent, Joe Roberts (D-Gulf Breeze).

Reporter Larry Wheeler wasn't given much space to work with. He writes, in a little over 740 words, as if differences over the Iraq War is the most important issue in the local congressional race:
"Despite the increased violence in Iraq and growing public dissatisfaction with U.S. involvement there, Republican Jeff Miller declines to criticize the Bush administration’s policy and remains staunchly supportive of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

"Joe Roberts, the Pensacola Democrat trying to unseat the three-term congressman from Chumuckla, believes the president’s strategy of “unending presence in Iraq” is unacceptable and Congress should step in to force a solution."
It's certainly true that the two candidates disagree over Iraq. It's also true that the whole Iraq mess is of vital importance to future generations of U.S. citizens, from new born babes to teens approaching draft age -- and quite likely the children of those children.

Joe Roberts has taken a position closer to the critical views of prominent retired and active military officers whom we mentioned yesterday. Miller, by contrast, seems to have swallowed the Bush administration's Kool-Aide to such an extent that he still wants to 'stay the course' even as George W. Bush is trying to disavow that policy.

To be sure, Wheeler writes that "The war in Iraq is just one of many issues on which Miller and Roberts don’t agree." But he's given space to mention only one other in any detail: veteran's benefits.
"Roberts says Miller is not the friend of veterans he claims to be.

The Disabled American Veterans “key votes” chart shows Miller voted against legislation the organization endorsed nine times while voting with the group just three times."
Miller's response?
“The DAV has chosen to play politics in an extreme way in the 2006 elections,” Miller said."
That's an odd thing for a politician to say. It's not as if Miller doesn't "play politics" himself all the time. More to the point, at 1.2 million members the D.A.V. is, just as it claims, the foremost representative of the interests of disabled veterans and their families, their widowed spouses and their orphans before federal, state, and local governments."

Miller counters that, "A different organization, American Veterans, gave Miller a 100 percent voting record." It's not immediately clear which of the dozen or more "American Veterans" organizations Miller means. But if he's referring to the well-known AmVets organization, founded after W.W. II to support veterans generally, then Miller's claim isn't quite accurate -- or relevant, for that matter.

Miller voted as the AmVets wanted on 6 out of 7 "key votes." That's high, but not 100%. The AmVets is a venerable veteran's organization, but not one for disabled vets.

A fundamental problem with Jeff Miller is that over the entirety of his five full years in Congress he has displayed no imaginative ideas, no leadership skills, and no political muscle around Capitol Hill. Although he's one of many members of the Republican-dominated House Armed Services Committee and Veteran's Affairs Committee, the fact is that he has accomplished little and initiated nothing notable, even there.

It's as if even his Republican colleagues in Washington see him only as the small-time county commissioner he once was. He may be a nice enough fellow, personally, but he's a light weight and always will be.

According to a detailed run-down by the non-partisan, completely independent Project Vote Smart, Miller is particularly weak on environmental issues, labor, education, personal privacy rights, public health, and (shockingly) senior citizen issues. There are a lot of items in that list that are of interest even to hard-core conservatives of Northwest Florida. Yet, as reporter Wheeler summarizes, while voting for virtually anything that contained spending money for "
military and homeland-security" (not to mention Halliburton give-aways) Miller regularly opposes other bills that would "fund energy, water, foreign operations, legislative-branch, commerce, justice, science, transportation, treasury and housing programs."

Even when it comes to projects that would serve the legitimate needs of his own district in Northwest Florida, Jeff Miller has under-performed. Over a five-year stretch when Republicans dominated all three branches of government including the House of Representatives, he collected only a few leftover crumbs from the table -- and those were in the oven long before he was first elected.

If, as most polls are now saying, the Democrats win a majority in the House next week, how much less effective will the nay-saying Miller become for us?
Panhandle voters concerned about the local economy, wage base, affordable housing, hurricane preparedness, beach cleanliness, and better highways -- as well as the Iraq disaster -- ought to give Joe Roberts a second look for Congress.

He's been running a "spirited campaign," as another PNJ reporter remarked the other day. He's honest, forthright, and energetic. And he'll fit in with the new Democratic majority a heck of a lot more comfortably than do-nothing Jeff Miller.

109th Congress: 'Thieves and Perverts'

"The worst Congress Ever" is how Matt Taibai describes the 109th Congress in a recent issue of Rolling Stone. Most incumbents of that Congress, of course, are even now treading the land, begging us to reelect them so they can go back to Washington -- and do it again.

"These past six years were more than just the most shameful, corrupt and incompetent period in the history of the American legislative branch," Taibai vividly writes. "These were the years when the U.S. parliament became a historical punch line, a political obscenity... a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes ... and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable."
"Congress has become an exercise of raw power with no principles -- and in that environment corruption has flourished. The Republicans in Congress decided from the outset that their future would be inextricably tied to George Bush and his policies. It has become this sad session of members sitting down and drinking Kool-Aid delivered by Karl Rove. Congress became a mere extension of the White House."

"The end result is a Congress that has hijacked the national treasury, frantically ceded power to the executive, and sold off the federal government in a private auction."
To read the full story on "how it all happened before our very eyes" click here.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Following Florida's Insurance Money

Today, the final installment of the Gannett media series about Florida insurance reforms focuses squarely on who has the incentive to find them -- and who doesn't. In the latter category are a bunch of fast-talking politicians who are hiding the fact that they've already sold out to the insurance industry.

Top of the list is Charlie Crist. It's shocking to read in "The Money Trail" by Paige St. John and Aaron Deslatte that --
"Attorney General Charlie Crist, the Republican candidate for governor, has taken in $763,507 in insurance industry contributions through Oct. 6, the most among any candidate in the general election."
By contrast, his Democratic opponent, Jim Davis, has received only $74,450. That's 9.8 percent of Crist's total.

The mountain of money Crist has raked in from insurance companies and agents doesn't yet break the all-time state record. That dubious distinction belongs to Florida's current Chief Financial Officer, Tom Gallagher, who collected over $1 million during the primary while supposedly regulating them. That's a million dollars of our premium money passed through intermediaries like State Farm, Florida Peninsula, and other property insurance companies.

But there's still time. Charlie Crist almost assuredly will break Gallagher's sell-out record by the time final candidate campaign contribution reports are due, well after the November 11 election.

Crist, of course, says the money won't influence him if he's elected. But talk is cheap. As Bill Newton of the Florida Consumer Action Network says, "You need to follow the money. The money talks. I don't pay attention to what people are saying -- it's the money that talks."

Other articles in the final installment of the Gannett series include --

The Generals vs. Bush

"[T]op Army brass have detected signs the Bush White House has begun trying to shift the blame for the Iraq War disaster to them."
It's been widely reported for over a year that retired military brass were becoming deeply disenchanted with the Bush administration's Iraq war strategy, tactics, and abuse of the military itself. Richard Whalen's recent article, "Revolt of the Generals", is only the latest of many such reports.

But it looks like something even more serious is going on, now, within the active military establishment. After silently standing by for three and a half years while White House and Pentagon civilian officials repeatedly assured the public that our military leadership was fully behind Bush's Iraq War (and the troops were getting all the equipment and support they needed) over the past few weeks active -- not retired -- military generals and other currently commissioned officers suddenly are going public with disagreements over the administration's story-line on Iraq.

Mark Shields heavily hinted at this Friday on Jim Lehrer's News Hour:
"The highest ranking or certainly one of the highest ranking men in the United States military today has recommended that we remove all troops from Baghdad, all American troops from Baghdad…All of the troops out of Baghdad, secure the road to the airport, secure the oil fields and the borders, and say that the pacification and the maintaining of order in Baghdad is the responsibility of the Iraqis. That is the recommendation of probably one of the most — probably the most respected man in uniform today."
The full transcript of the usually well informed Shields' occult remarks -- he never identified the 'high ranking officer -- can be read on the News Hour web site.

Army Times reporter Sean Naylor said much the same thing Saturday on NPR's All Things Considered. The veteran Military Times reporter also repeated more or less the same report on the same day in USA Today. (Both Military Times and USA Today are owned by Gannett Publishing.)

There, journalist Naylor quoted Retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who has been one of the chosen 'mouthpieces' for currently active military leaders. Asked why top active military brass now are speaking out against Bush's Iraq policy, Naylor said on NPR there are two reasons.

First, he told interviewer Debbie Elliott, they want to protect their personal reputations and that of the Army itself against the kind of criticism leveled against military commanders who were accused of being overly complaisant after the Vietnam War was lost.
"I suspect that the candor follows by probably several months their internal downturn in assessments. I talked to a source of Capitol Hill for this story who indicated that they had been hearing the sort of comment that [Gen. William] Caldwell made behind closed doors for some months prior to that. So I think what appears to be happening is that the generals have decided that their reputations and the reputations of the Army leadership - perhaps the Army itself - are now riding on them speaking candidly about what's occurring."
Second, top Army brass have detected signs that the Bush White House is beginning to try to shift the blame for the Iraq disaster to the military -- and they won't stand for it.
"[T]he generals' attitude was, okay, well, if you're going to hand us this responsibility publicly and folks are going to be judging in the future the Army on what we do, then we're going to speak out. We're going to have more of a say in this from now on."
Also late last week, Gordon Lubold reported in The Army Times that a group of active-duty military members calling themselves "An Appeal for Redress" is collecting signatures from "dozens of active-duty service members who say it's time to redeploy U.S. forces from Iraq." The group even has a web site here.

Constitutionally, the president is the commander in chief of the military. For over two hundred years, to its great credit, U.S. military leadership genuinely respected its subordination to civilian leaders. There have been few exceptions as serious as Gen. Douglas MacArthur or Gen. Curtis LeMay, and they were quickly and efficiently resolved.

But civilian leaders have never before used military leaders like mere potted plants to show off for political purposes. It looks, now, like those 'plants' are fighting back.

The consequences of Bush's ill-conceived Iraq adventure keep mounting. Thousands of American young people have died, tens of thousands are maimed for life. The administration has imperiled the Bill of Rights. Our few remaining 'coalition' allies, besieged by their own at home, are ready to quit Iraq by year's end.

We've unnecessarily complicated our own homeland security by squandering the world's good will after 9-11 and inflaming uncounted more jihadists. The Middle East has become more dangerous, not less. Seeing what Bush has done to Iraq, two other nations he disparaged as part of the 'axis of evil', Iran and North Korea, have added incentive to develop nuclear weapons.
The Army is nearly broken. National Guard units across the nation have had to leave their equipment overseas and now need replacements. More Iraqi civilians have died since the U.S. invasion than Saddam ever killed.

And, now, the Bush administration's scape-goating of the military could threaten to inspire a real generals' revolt that once again will test whether civilian rule of the military can endure. The Iraq disaster must be brought to a quick end before it is the end of us.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Tallahassee Paralysis

Pensacola's own Michael Stewart writes the third installment in Gannett Corp.'s series on the hurricane insurance mess today. Both the PNJ and Florida Today are carrying the article.

The bottom line is right at the top:
"Other coastal states have taken steps to help residents weather the impact of hurricane-driven insurance premiums. Bruce and Alice Heidt of Pensacola want to know why Florida can't or won't do the same."
In what might just as well have been a companion piece, Paige St. John reports in the Tallahassee Democrat that Governor Jeb Bush is trashing hurricane insurance reform proposals made by both major party candidates who want to succeed him.
"Davis, the Democrat, embraces a plan to set up a state insurance fund to cover the first $100,000 in storm damage.

Crist, the Republican candidate for governor, calls for a requirement that insurance giants must sell home policies if they also want to peddle car insurance in Florida."
Jeb hasn't had a plan for the last either years, either, but like his older brother when it comes to another disaster, that hasn't stopped him from urging us to 'stay the course.'

For more on what other states have done -- and what keeps Florida government so paralyzed (hint: ideological blinders) -- read on.

Mierzwa Doctrine Reaffirmed for Milton Couple

A Milton, Florida, couple has won the first Florida appeals court challenge to the Mierzwa doctrine brought after Hurricane Ivan destroyed their home in 2004.

Yesterday, a divided three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeals sitting in Tallahassee ruled 2 to 1 in Florida Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Co. v. Cox that under the Valued Policy Law as it existed in 2004, the wind insurer is required to pay full policy limits for a dwelling totally destroyed by a combination of both wind and water.

The full 25-page decision and 27-page dissent can be accessed on the appeal court's web site here. [pdf format]. Paige St. John has a more easily-digestible news report in today's Tallahassee Democrat. A slightly edited version also appears in the Pensacola News Journal.


In 2004, the home of Eugene and Debra Cox was insured for $65,000 against wind damage. They did not carry any flood insurance. After Hurricane Ivan destroyed the home in September 2004, they made a claim for policy limits against Farm Bureau, the wind insurer.

As yesterday's court opinion explains --
"[B]ased on [Farm Bureau's] inspection of the Coxes' home after the hurricane, there were damages to the home caused by the wind totaling $ 11,583.93. Although Farm Bureau acknowledged the dwelling was a total loss, it argued that this total loss was caused primarily by flooding, and that windstorm damage caused less than fifty percent of the total damage.
At the trial court level, judge Ron Swanson ruled in favor of the Coxes and ordered Farm Bureau to pay the $65,000 policy limits because the home was a total loss. Swanson based his ruling on the prior controlling case of Mierzwa v. Florida Windstorm Insurance Co. Had there been any, Farm Bureau then would have been able to file a claim for "contribution" from other insurance companies covering the Cox home for other perils.

In such a manner, the century-old Florida VPL cast the burden of hassling (and suing, if necessary) on state-regulated insurance companies where the company claims the damage arose from multiple causes like wind and water.

Majority Decision

In upholding Swanson's ruling, the decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeals assuredly will impact hundreds -- or possibly thousands -- of unresolved hurricane insurance claims filed before July 1, 2005. For the most part, the court's decision is an unremarkable and workman-like application of the literal language of the Florida VPL statute as it existed in 2004. Quoting the earlier Mierzwa decision, the court noted --
"The meaning of the VPL is simple and straightforward. There are two essentials in the statute. The first is that the building be 'insured by [an] insurer as to a covered peril.' The second is that the building be a total loss. If these two facts are true, the VPL mandates that the carrier is liable to the owner for the face amount of the policy, no matter what other facts are involved as to the cost of repairs or replacement. That is to say, if the insurance carrier has any liability at all to the owner for a building damaged by a covered peril and deemed a total loss, that liability is for the face amount of the policy.
The court majority also explained the purpose behind the VPL as it existed for over a century:
"An important purpose of the VPL is to reduce administrative costs. Insurance companies need not incur expenses for experts to pick through rubble to ascertain, for example, whether hurricane damage was done by wind-driven surface water spray, on one hand, or rainfall in a windstorm, on the other; nor, when experts disagree on such questions, does the VPL require the parties to bear the additional expense of litigation. Under the approach the dissenting opinion advocates, valuation questions would have to be resolved in conjunction with -- as part and parcel of -- questions of 'relative causation.' Farm Bureau has conceded in the present case, moreover, that it is liable for the full $65,000 if the Coxes can show that their home would have been destroyed by wind, even if Farm Bureau can prove its allegation that water was the primary cause of the loss in fact.
Dissenting Opinion

Dissenting judge Ricky Polston acknowledged that the former VPL law was designed to speed claim settlements. But he argued in his dissenting opinion that the VPL law was intended to reduce litigation only over "valuation" issues, not multiple causes of loss.
"In short, the entire point of the VPL statute is to prevent after-the-fact quarreling over what amount is recoverable under the policy. The insurer has received the premium commensurate with the agreed valuation, and the insured has paid the premium commensurate with the agreed valuation. Under such circumstances, each party has received that for which it bargained."
Siding with Farm Bureau, Polston also claimed he was applying the literal language of the former statute:
"I agree with Mierzwa to the extent it provides that if a covered peril is the cause of the total loss, then the insured is entitled to the face amount of the policy in accordance with the statute, the court's second alternative reason for its holding. However, I disagree with the Fourth District to the extent its decision requires an insurer to pay the face value of the policy where the covered peril, although causing some damage, did not alone cause the total loss."
To his credit, Judge Polston frankly admitted that his personal view is not supported by the Mierzwa decision. He would have preferred to see the court rule against the Coxes and simultaneously invite the Florida Supreme Court to resolve the conflict once and for all:
"I agree with Farm Bureau that it is not responsible for losses caused by water damage, a peril excluded from the policy. Therefore, I would reverse in part, and certify conflict with Mierzwa."
Future Rulings

Farm Bureau doubtless will ask the full panel of First District Court of Appeals judges to review the 3-judge panel's decision. Beyond that, there probably will be an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. So, the issue is far from being finally resolved.

The bigger news is that yesterday's decision will provide no relief whatsoever for future Florida hurricane victims. Last year, insurance industry lobbyists bullied and bought enough Florida state legislators to eviscerate the VPL law. As it now appears, the Valued Policy Law no longer applies to insurance claims filed after July 1, 2005.

That's something home-owners and business-owners -- the very one least able to wrestle with armies of obdurate insurance company adjusters and lawyers after suffering storm damage -- might want to keep in mind when they go to the polls early next month.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Jeb's Hooverville Insurance Proposal

Gannett Corp.'s media outlets this week are making an important contribution to the debate that Floridians should be having with their public officials (many of whom are up for reelection in 11 days) about the State's failure to properly regulate the property insurance industry and reform state-owned Citizens Property Insurance Co.

The four-day series of closely-connected articles is appearing in several Gannett-owned media outlets, including Florida Today and the Pensacola News Journal. Overall, the series as it is unfolding paints a very ugly picture of --
  • private insurance company price-gouging
  • state regulators rendered impotent by our elected politicians
  • politicians in the legislature and Governor's mansion who have sold out to the insurance industry
  • "glaring disparities" among the premium rates being charged by the largest insurance companies, and
  • a Florida population faced with the prospect of enduring ruinous premium increases or fleeing the state like refugees from a war zone.
One shocker, for those who haven't been paying attention to details, is this from the principal series author, Matt Reed:
"Most of the cost increase reflects higher profit demands by U.S. and foreign insurers, not higher storm risk."
Reed started the series off yesterday with this lede: "Florida's hurricane insurance market is all but out of control." In today's Pensacola News Journal, the local headline for the second installment cuts to the heart of another problem: "One State, Many Rates."

Every article, so far, begins with the obligatory personal story to dramatically illustrate the problem from the readers' perspective. Here's today's tale:
"Herman Allday has lived in his Cordova Park home in Pensacola for 30 years. And for all that time, it has been insured by State Farm. Allday recently found out that his next State Farm premium will be $5,400, up from $1,400."
Vivid and interesting as these anecdotes are, the more important information comes from insights into state policy-maker positions which can be gleaned here and there by a careful reading. For instance, in one sidebar titled "Five Things You Should Know About Insurance" we learn the one thing about Governor Jeb Bush (and his legislative supporters) that you really should know:
"The rate increases approved for private insurers exceed Citizens own rates. State law requires Citizens to have rates higher than the top 20 private insurance companies in any county, ratcheting up rates all around. Gov. Jeb Bush is discussing with regulators the possibility of making those Citizens increases frequent and automatic."
Once again, Jeb Bush's reflexive 'privatizing' ideology trumps common sense. Bush's proposal would worsen the insurance crisis, not ease it.

Rather than forcing the state-owned Citizens Property Insurance Company to increase its rates every time a privately-owned insurance corporation decides to gouge another slice out of the hide of homeowners, the governor ought to be leading the charge to eliminate the requirement of current law that Citizens charge higher premiums than the private market demands.

We've said before that we've-said-it-before:
Good government requires identifying which of those functions can be performed reliably, honestly, and efficiently by government itself and which can be safely left to the competitive market.
If the private, for-profit insurance market can't or won't provide wind insurance coverage at reasonable and competitive rates in Florida, then hurricane insurance should be treated like any other public necessity such as law enforcement, water and sewer service, interstate highways, or homeland security.

Every sign we have in Florida suggests the private capital market simply is not able or interested in providing adequate hurricane coverage at reasonable and competitive rates. The increasingly consolidated insurance industry is not satisfied with respectable profits; it's bought enough of our state politicians, now, that it expects to reap excessive profits.

As part of the series, Gannett created a statewide data base that enables a comparison of rate quotes via an interactive map where you can see rates by zip code. For Pensacola Beach, what that data base shows for zip code 32561 in Escambia County is this current range of quotes:
Allstate $1,518
State Farm $7,792
Nationwide $1,841
USAA $1,105
Citizens $3,937

That's the picture of a broken market, not a competitive one. Jeb Bush's plan to force Citizens Property Insurance to charge more and hike rates faster in such a market is as irrational as would have been a Depression-era bill to require that Hoovervilles charge hobos higher rents to protect the interests of slumlords.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Scandal Sheet

If, like us, you're starting lose track of all the bums in Congress under criminal investigation, help is on the way! Talking Points Memo's Document Archive contains the latest handy-dandy Scandal Sheet.

Asylum Street Spankers

Readers are sending us more than emails these days. We're getting emails with attachments. Here's our current favorite: the Asylum Street Spankers from AustinTacious, Texas, singing "Stick That Yellow Ribbon."

Now that Buck Lee has given up his yellow Hummer, do you think he'd book 'em for the beach?

While We Were Away

While we were away, the Pensacola News Journal endorsed the election of Alex Sink for State CFO. That's the position we called the one position likely to have the most "immediate effect on the lives of Florida homeowners and businesses." Says the PNJ:
"In the restructured Florida Cabinet, the CFO might be second only to the governor in the ability to influence the direction of the state. * * * In her first run for public office, Sink brings what is needed to the post: an impressive business and financial background, a lively intellect -- and the perspective of someone from outside the too-cozy confines of back-room Tallahassee politics."
Read more.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

TV and Taxes

We don't want this past week's posts on the subjects of tax evasion and television to be misunderstood. There are rare times, we would agree, when television can soar to intellectually stimulating heights; and there are rare times, too, when not paying your personal taxes can be an admirably moral and courageous act of protest. Just ask Henry David Thoreau.

A recent episode of the popular ABC network fictional series Boston Legal offers a shining illustration of both:

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Dr. Dino's Pizza Party

It was always apparent that it would take a wicked combination of avarice, hubris, and stupidity for someone like Kent Hovind to bilk befuddled boobs out of their money by convincing them that god manufactured dinosaurs and mankind in the same week and airmailed them all to earth at the same time. Yesterday's testimony in the Dr. Dino trial proved that Hovind has all three dubious qualifications.

One of the PNJ's stalwarts, reporter Michael Stewart, has the story. It takes place "after church" two years ago when Hovind invited Seminole, Florida, attorney David Charles Gibbs "and his daughter, along with other church members... to Hovind's home for pizza and soda."

Gibbs, Stewart reports, "is affiliated with the Christian Law Association, a nonprofit organization founded by his father that offers free legal help to churches nationwide." But instead of picking Gibbs' brain for free advice about his many frivolous lawsuits and IRS troubles, Hovind spent the afternoon lecturing the lawyer on his own screwy legal theories:
"Gibbs said Hovind tried to persuade him he had no obligation to pay employee income taxes and explained with 'a great deal of bravado' how he had 'beat the tax system.'

Gibbs said Hovind also told him he preferred to deal in cash and that when you are 'dealing with cash there is no way to trace it, so it wasn't taxable.'"

Some measure of Dr. Dino's deranged view of himself can be gleaned from the analogies he pressed on Gibbs:
"'He tried to stress to me that he was like the pope and this was like the Vatican,' Seminole attorney David Charles Gibbs testified... ."
Now, the Vatican may consist of only 108 acres. But it is officially recognized by hundreds of diplomatic treaties as an independent nation. So, it's something of a hoot to learn that Hovind sees himself as the same kind of fellow as, say, Hildebrand (aka Pope Gregory VII - 1020?-1085), who excommunicated kings and emperors and fielded entire armies in his effort to fill the void left by the collapse of the Roman Empire with a religious theocracy stretching from Constantinople to London.

What's less amusing is to realize that Dr. Dino claims he is exempt from all uniform local, state, and federal tax laws simply because he asserts fruity ideas that are biblical in character. After all, to a secular realist Dr. Dino's religious ideas at a certain level of abstraction are no more outlandish or fantastical than those of other churches, religions, and faith-based organizations who have been bullying Congress and state legislatures into giving them special tax exemptions.

Just last week, the New York Times drew attention to this phenomenon with a four-part series on religious tax breaks. For online readers, most of the series is hidden behind Times Select (although you may be able to freely access a couple of them here and here. But you can get the flavor from the one installment that is still readable for free, titled "As Exemptions Grow, Religion Outweighs Regulation":
"In recent years, many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide 'war on religion' that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations — from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples — enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.

* * * {M]any have been granted in just the last 15 years — sometimes added to legislation, anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized 'earmarks' benefiting other special interests.

An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use. New breaks have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.

The special breaks amount to 'a sort of religious affirmative action program,' said John Witte Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at the Emory University law school.

Professor Witte added: 'Separation of church and state was certainly part of American law when many of today’s public opinion makers were in school. But separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land.'"
So, it would seem Dr. Dino isn't the only 'Christian' who's been throwing parties and angling for tax exemptions to subsidize his magical thinking. Everybody and anybody who embraces the same or similar irrational ideations has been getting into the act. The difference is, the smarter ones buy a few politicians, first, to earmark exemptions for them.

As the Times later editorialized when the series had concluded:
"Religious institutions should be protected from excessive intrusion by government. Judges should not tell churches who they have to hire as ministers, or meddle in doctrinal disputes. But under pressure from politically influential religious groups, Congress, the White House, and federal and state courts have expanded this principle beyond all reason. It is increasingly being applied to people, buildings and programs only tangentially related to religion.

"In its expanded form, this principle amounts to an enormous subsidy for religion, in some cases violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment. It also undermines core American values, like the right to be free from job discrimination. It puts secular entrepreneurs at an unfair competitive disadvantage. And it deprives states and localities of much-needed tax revenues, putting a heavier burden on ordinary taxpayers."

Pizza, anyone? The "atoms of carbon which enter into its composition," as T.H. Huxley would have reasoned had he known that Pizza Hut delivers, will taste just like the sacramental wafer -- only without the cheese.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Confidential Informant

Prosecutors in the Dr. Dino tax evasion trial yesterday apparently tried to make it look like it was a Pensacola Christian College executive who blew the whistle on Kent Hovind's tax evasion scheme.

According to the tag-team news report by Angela Fail in the local paper, Christian College vice-president Rebekah Horton testified yesterday that it was she who informed on Dr. Dino and turned taped evidence over to the feds. As Fail succinctly explains:
"[Dr. Dino] Hovind believes he and his employees work for God, are paid by God and therefore aren't subject to taxation."
Here's the surprise: according to the news report, the Pensacola Christian College executive "believed it was the college's duty to report the misleading doctrine." Consequently, the PCC vice-president testified, "Administration called the Internal Revenue Service and gave the tape to officials... ."

"Misleading doctrine"? Good grief! If PCC faculty and staff see it as their "duty" to "report...misleading doctrine" they're going to be awfully busy turning in every magical thinker out there -- starting with the screwball faculty and staff at Pensacola Christian College itself.

The truth is, the feds really didn't need Horton's crime tip. Earlier reports establish that "Dr. Dino" and the U.S. Government had been thoroughly entangled, in court and out, for years. Kent Hovind has been filing frivolous lawsuits and bogus bankruptcy claims against the IRS for much of the last decade.

Moreover, videotapes of Hovind's multi-part seminar on why Christians of his particular flavor- of-choice lived alongside dinosaurs and shouldn't pay their taxes have been in the public domain for as long as Kent Hovind has been fleecing simpletons with his Dr. Dino act. Various copies are now available on the web.

In the third video segment of a 2003 'seminar' given in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Dr. Dino happens to make an admission against interest relevant to the ongoing trial. In fake-folksy introductory remarks while speaking of his wife and adult children, Hovind says:
"We live in Pensacola, Florida. We have three kids, all married, and the dog died. I made it -- I'm home free. It's wonderful. And all three of my kids work for me... ."
Take a look, if you don't mind risking the health of your brain. The admission comes at minute 1:04, so you don't have to watch all 3 hours of his hokum.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Tag-Teaming Dr. Dino's Trial

Apparently, the Pensacola News Journal intends to cover Dr. Dino's trial for tax evasion straight, no chaser. No H.L. Mencken to give us the colorful commentary; no 'kick, bounce, or leap' in the style of A.J. Liebling, no Runyonesque accounts of the certifiably weird characters in the Dr. Dino trial who surely rival the cast of the Daddy and Peaches soap opera.

Just the facts, ma'am?

Well, not quite. The paper seemingly has decided to use a tag-team of reporters, switching from one to the next with each passing day. It's a terrible decision, no doubt driven by Gannett Corporation's devastating cuts across the news room. But once made, you'd think the dwindling staff of PNJ reporters sentenced to cover the case would at least read the news dispatches filed by their predecessors before they rush off to court themselves.

Apparently not. Today's front-page, top-of-the-fold coverage of the tax evasion trial of Dr. Dino is the handiwork of reporter Amy Sowder. Somehow, she manages to drain even more blood and context from the event than did her colleague, Angela Fail, in yesterday's paper.

For proof, we submit Ms. Sowder's lede as Exhibit 1:
"Two people who worked for a Pensacola evangelist testified Wednesday in federal court that they didn't consider where they worked to be a church."
That's a two-fer. In a single opening sentence, Sowder has managed both to focus the reader's attention on the most irrelevant part of yesterday's testimony and to camouflage the most pertinent part.

Whether Dr. Dino's "Dinosaur Adventure Land" is a "church" or not is legally irrelevant to the charges he faces. As Angela Fail reported yesterday, prosecutor Michelle Heldmeyer explained it this way in her opening statement to the jury:
"...though the Hovinds refer to their business as a ministry, it's not affiliated with a church, she said.

"It's not a church," she said. "But that doesn't matter, because a church still has to pay payroll tax."
The camouflage starts with the headline -- "Workers Testify In 'Dr. Dino' Trial" -- and is repeated throughout Souder's dispatch. "Workers." That's a nice, neutral-sounding word. What Souder doesn't tell her readers is that she's using that word to avoid addressing a central issue in the trial: not whether "Dinosaur Adventure Land" is a church, but whether the people who were staffing it -- the "workers" -- are employees or independent contractors.

If the religious zealots who took money from a gullible public at Dr. Dino's emporium of ecclesiastical effluent were "employees" then Dr. Dino was required by law to secure and file W-4s, withhold payroll taxes, send out W-2 forms, and escrow both employee and employer Social Security taxes. If, instead, they were "independent contractors" then he wasn't.

The standards for resolving that issue are well known. As the IRS explains it on the web:
"In determining whether the person providing service is an employee or an independent contractor, all information that provides evidence of the degree of control and independence must be considered.
* * *
A general rule is that anyone who performs services for you is your employee if you can control what will be done and how it will be done.
Reporting facts without context is bad journalism. Even so, we'd be ready to forgive all if only the PNJ reporters would write their trial dispatches in a compelling or entertaining way.

But readers of the PNJ will search in vain through the past two days for any hint of what the witnesses really looked like on the witness stand. Did they sweat and shift uncomfortably in the seat as they came into the presence of the self-proclaimed "steward" of "god's money"? Did any of the jurors visibly react to the testimony? Is the judge keeping a tight rein on the proceedings? Or, instead, is she letting out leagues of loose rope with which Dr. Dino and his lawyers are invited to hang their own case?

Is there no moment of levity in the courtroom to break the tension among the lawyers? (That would be a first.) No quick exchange of Christ-like beatific smiles between Dr. Dino loyalists in the gallery who still believe god sent him something like a text-message to open up a commercial bank checking account and have "his employees to sign nondisclosure agreements if they wanted to keep their jobs"?

Little wonder serious people are asking if newspapers can survive the digital information age. The answer is: not if they report trials the way the News Journal is covering this one.

Bad for the Brain

You haven't heard this on the evening television news, or any television news program for that matter. You're not likely to, either: Watching television can damage your child's brain.

If you're a kid you secretly think it might be true but you've been keeping it to yourself, right? After all, everybody has one.

If you're a young adult with a child of your own, the idea might nag at you occasionally -- especially when you feel rushed or overwhelmed. But you tell yourself you just have to use it now and then as a 'babysitter' -- and how harmful could it really be, anyway? After all, everybody has one one.

If you're a grandparent, occasionally you may have a vague, foreboding sense of doom as you watch your own adult children plunking your grandkids down in front of the TV. Maybe you've even read reports of last year's study by doctors Linebarger and Walker concluding television watching impairs the language, cognitive, and attentional development of children. But everybody has one.

Now, more hard evidence has arrived: Television really is bad for the brain. Gregg Esterbrook of Slate Magazine has the story, titled "Television Might Cause Autisism."
"Today, Cornell University researchers are reporting what appears to be a statistically significant relationship between autism rates and television watching by children under the age of 3. The researchers studied autism incidence in California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington state. They found that as cable television became common in California and Pennsylvania beginning around 1980, childhood autism rose more in the counties that had cable than in the counties that did not. They further found that in all the Western states, the more time toddlers spent in front of the television, the more likely they were to exhibit symptoms of autism disorders.

The Cornell study represents a potential bombshell in the autism debate."
The full study can be read on the Johnson School web site for Cornell University. To be sure, the authors are not saying their statistical proof is dispositive. But they are saying the correlation is more than coincidental.

In the field of statistics, a "statistically significant correlation" means the frequency of occurrence of the two phenemonena -- increased television watching and increased autisim among children -- cannot reasonably be explained by mere chance. Instead, it strongly suggests causation, although the specific causal mechanism has yet to be proved.

"We are not saying we have found the cause of autism, we're saying we have found a critical piece of evidence," Cornell researcher Michael Waldman told Esterbrook. The "statistically significant" correlation is important probative evidence -- so reliable, in fact, that it likely would be admissible evidence in a court of law.

On the strength of the same kind of statistical evidence, the U.S. government began warning decades ago that cigarettes cause lung cancer and Thalidomide when ingested during pregnancy causes birth defects. Only later did we learn those things cause a lot of other miseries, too.

It's time parents paid heed: "boycott the boob tube" as one Canadian writer urges. Keep your kids as far away from television as you can. Throw it out the window. Haul it away to the junk yard. At a minimum, keep the damn thing turned off while your kids are awake.

Try buying or borrowing more books for them. Or, as the study's authors put it with greater restraint:
"[W]e believe our results provide sufficient support for the possibility that until further research can be conducted it might be prudent to act as if it were [already proved]. In other words, maybe there should be additional emphasis placed on the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatricians that early childhood television watching should be eliminated or at the very least quite limited... the current recommendation is that there should be no television watching before the age of two and no more than one to two hours per day for older children). We see little downside in taking this step and a very large upside if it turns out that television indeed causes autism.
As for us adults, it's probably too late. Our brains already have been addled. How else explain the "shambles" of a Congress we seem to have voted into office?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dinosaur Trial Begins

The long-awaited trial of Dr. Dino has commenced. The jury has been sworn, the lawyers have delivered their opening statements. Today the evidence begins to pour in.

Angela Fail filed a workman-like story for the Pensacola News Journal. Very Journalism School, very balanced, very fair, very... well, prosaic and boring:
"Opening statements began Tuesday in the trial of Pensacola evangelist Kent Hovind and his wife, Jo. Between them, the Hovinds are charged with 58 counts of tax fraud involving their Creation Science Ministry. The ministry includes Dinosaur Adventure Land on North Palafox Street, a creationist theme park dedicated to debunking evolution."
"Dedicated to debunking evolution?" Debunking? Kent Hovind is a mountebank who made millions off the ignorance and fear of an uneducated, timorous public by selling them the hallucinatory notion that the bible proves dinosaurs inhabited the earth at the same time as mankind. He no more 'debunks' evolution than the Wizard of Oz proves monkeys can fly.

Ms. Fail does okay setting up the prosecutor's story:
"Heldmeyer said from 1999 to March 2004, the Hovinds took in more than $5 million. Their income came from amusement-park profits and merchandise -- books, audiotapes and videotapes -- they sold on site and through phone and online orders, she said. About half the money went to employees."
Then she blew it by not reporting the context: what Hovind sells isn't "merchandise" -- it's pure baloney sandwiched between slices of claptrap and bunkum.

Angela! Loosen up, have some fun. More to the point, let us have some fun. Give us the smell of the courtroom, the smirk in the corner of that juror's pursed lips, the sight of the lawyer who takes mincing steps across the courtroom floor like someone whose shoes are too tight.

Wake up, Angela! This could be a career maker for you. Sure, it's a tax fraud case. Sure, you're looking ahead at a string of dreary days while soporous accountants and vapid IRS agents dutifully drone on and on about numbers without end. But your own trial reports shouldn't be equally torpid.

Take a clue from H.L. Mencken's timeless coverage of the Scopes "Monkey Trial." Look behind the curtain. Follow "the squirming and jabbering mass" out to the Hills of Zion. Tell us "to what extreme lengths the salvation of the local primates has been pushed." Let us know if the prosecutor's speech about taxing churches had the same effect as if she "had bawled it up a rainspout in the interior of Afghanistan."

It might not conform to the usual journalism rules. Then again, apparently this isn't the usual kind of case. The defense attorneys already are complaining that when they executed a search warrant "
IRS agents stepped outside their authority... interrogating employees and confiscating records and money."

Holy moley, no! Armed with a court-authorized search warrant, the agents actually "confiscated" potential evidence? How low can they go?

There seems to be enough hokum in this courtroom to fill a museum of natural history -- you know the kind we mean. A museum that shows dinosaurs in their natural habit grazing at the fast food window.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Supersize Nation

According to the Census Bureau, statistically speaking the U.S. population reached 300 million at 6:46 a.m. CDT today, Tuesday, October 17. As BBC News is reporting, the exact time of this milestone was marked by a "population clock... based on calculations that factor birth and death rates and migration."

The last obvious benchmark of this kind was achieved when we reached 200 million on November 20, 1967. As of now, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there's one birth every seven seconds, one death every 13 seconds, and one net new immigrant every 31 seconds.

"The result is an increase in the total population of one person every 11 seconds," or nearly three million new Americans per year.

Not only that, but we're growing heftier, too. According to a "Fat Clock" based on data from the Center for Disease Control, on average Americans are gaining 1.15 pounds each and every year.
A loose extrapolation of that data suggests that back in 1967 the average American weighed only 136.2 lbs. but by the beginning of 2007 we will weigh in at 181 lbs., on average, for every man, woman and child in the U.S.A.

So, it seems the growing national population -- new and old, native and immigrant -- has put on a cumulative total of more than 27 billion pounds in the past 39 years. (300m x 181 - 200m x 136.2).

That's some butt on us, eh? Somebody needs to go on a diet.

Lieberman Links

A Kos blogger with the screen name "DavefromQueens" has posted 181 Reasons Not To Vote For Joe Lieberman. Criminy! We were aware of only 124.

CT Blogger has video clips here and here of Lieberman's 3-way debate, where he put a fair number of those reasons on display.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Archiving the 2006 Elections

"Illustrating the utter corruption and dishonesty of Bush followers, both in the Congress and in the pundit class, is accomplished simply by comparing what they said then to what they say now."
-- Glenn Greenwald, "A Trip Down Right-Wing Memory Lane," March 11, 2006
The amazing and astounding Way Back Machine, surely one of the world's largest archives of dead web sites, is asking for your help:
"Help us document the election! On November 7th, Americans will go to the polls and vote.

Internet Archive, using Archive-It, is asking our community at large to archive the websites commemorating this national election.

Please submit your election themed url below and check Archive-It in a few weeks to browse the collection."
The Way Back Machine already has "55 billion web pages archived from 1996 to a few months ago." Now, they want to add the real losers, as well as the winners, of the upcoming election.

You know the kind of losers we mean: those who are repeating "stay the course in Iraq" this year who will be denying it next ... the hypocrites who deny global warming today and will be sweating to hide that fact tomorrow... the Jeff Miller's of this world who voted for drilling off the coast of Pensacola while claiming it was "necessary" but who will be denying it when the first oil spill washes up on the beach.

You can help by the simple act of archiving web sites, speeches, newsletters, and other web-based position statements of the pols to keep them from re-writing history tomorrow. In this way, over the long run we can bring an end to the "deceitful ritual", as Glenn Greenwald puts it today, of politicians who try to re-cast themselves in the next election as something they weren't in this one.

Environmental Ratings

The League of Conservation (via Florida Progressive Coalition) has released ratings of all Florida congressmen and senators on their environmental records. Local congressman Jeff Miller gets 8 out of a possible 100 points. That's an F in almost anybody's grade book.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Political Payoff

Yesterday, we focused on the one statewide race we think will have the most immediate impact on the daily lives of Florida homeowners and businesses in this new era of runaway property insurance insurance rates. Today, we want to point out just which candidate the insurance industry is financing.

Alex Sink, the Democratic nominee for state CFO, has raised about $2.4 million. Of that sum, only $5,025 was donated by insurance industry companies -- and all but three of the companies listed have nothing obvious to do with hurricane or property insurance.

By contrast, the Republican candidate Tom Lee has over $3 million in the bank. This election cycle, $58,500 came directly from insurance industry execs. That's more than ten times the amount insurance executives gave his opponent, Alex Sink.

When the time comes for the newly elected CFO of Florida to propose storm insurance reforms, what do you suppose those oh-so-generous insurance companies expect to get from Tom Lee, the candidate they're backing?

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."

Florida Condo Owners: Be Fleeced or Flee?

Earlier this week a few news outlets in Florida -- too few, really -- carried word of just-released survey results of Florida condominium owners that "shows many condo residents are seriously thinking about leaving the state because their post-hurricane property insurance rates have risen so dramatically they can't afford the premiums."

The survey was conducted by the Community Association Leadership Lobby, a worthy-looking non-profit advocacy group. CALL currently is headed by south Florida lawyer Donna Berger.

As Paige St. John analyzed the survey results:
"More than 68 percent of those answering an Internet survey... say they or their neighbors are considering selling their units and moving to another state where insurance premiums are lower. More than 22 percent said they could not afford the insurance premiums passed on to them through their condominium association.

"About two-thirds of those filling out the questionnaire said they wanted more government involvement in seeking a solution -- almost 65 percent supported increased state regulation and 60 percent supported some form of state-created alternative to private insurance.

"Some 90 percent said they thought 'elected officials' were not doing everything they could to "keep insurance costs reasonable."
The CALL press release announcing the survey results can be read on Yahoo News. Florida Today followed up a day later with anecdotal reactions of some condo unit owners who face a tripling of insurance rates.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

McCarthy Puts His Foot Down - Quietly

[T]he Insurance Commissioner doesn't 'intend to order either insurance company to tell policyholders they have that choice... .' Instead, he's leaving that up to the private sector of individual insurance agents.'
Paige St. John is reporting for Gannett News publications around Florida that state insurance commissioner Kevin McCarthy yesterday ordered Citizens Property Insurance to take back as many as 100,000 customers who were "sent to private companies that then increased their rates." Among those affected are over 1,000 Escambia County property owners -- many of them on Pensacola Beach. [The numbers of customers affected, sorted by county, are given at the end of this version of St. John's article.]

Edited versions of St. John's article are appearing in multiple Gannett Corp. news outlets around the state including today's Pensacola News Journal. Essentially, McCarthy's action is intended to partially alleviate, although not entirely correct, the highly imprudent "out-sourcing," or privatization, of existing wind insurance policies which were held originally by the state-owned Citizens Property Insurance Co.

We wrote about this over a year ago. (See "Depopulated to a Dog" and "Depopulation: The New Insurance Storm".) In the late spring and summer of 2005, local homeowners began receiving an imperious letter from Citizens informing them that their wind policies were being transferred to privately owned insurance companies in South Florida.

The private companies were taking advantage of the notoriously bad state law that invites just about any Tom, Dick or Harry to set up a new insurance company with or without much money behind it, cherry-pick existing policies from Citizens Property Insurance, and then collect a cash bonus from Citizens Property for taking the policies off its hands.

St. John explains what happened next:
"At least two ... smaller insurers, Florida Peninsula Insurance Company and HomeWise Insurance Company, pulled policies out of Citizens and then took advantage of a provision allowing them to raise rates before regulatory approval.

"Those policyholders found themselves forced to accept coverage at premiums nearly double Citizens' already high rates."
In issuing the rare "take back" order yesterday, which allows the unfortunate customers to return to Citizens Property for wind insurance coverage, McCarthy issued a press release acknowledging that the transfer had caused "a financial nightmare" for homeowners. What McCarthy's press release neglects to mention is that last year he was issuing statements about how "reassured" he was to see the out-sourcing of those policies to new, untested, private insurance companies that existed largely on paper, only.

As Paige St. John summarizes, now beach homeowners "have the option of returning to the state's insurer-of-last resort" from the two privately owned companies that have been screwing them. But here's the rub: the Insurance Commissioner doesn't "intend to order either insurance company to tell policyholders they have that choice... ."

Instead, he's leaving that up to the private sector of individual insurance agents.

Can you believe it? Kevin McCarthy is the top insurance regulator in Florida -- and he can't be bothered to notify insurance customers that he's changed their options?

Once again, ideology trumps common sense. Now, state officials are privatizating the notification to citizens of their rights -- even as those same state officials admit the earlier state-ordered mandatory privatization caused those same citizens a "financial nightmare."

When the 'depopulation' notice arrived in the mail last year, insurance agents around the state were telling cutomers they had no idea what was going on. "We're the last to know," our own agent told us. All he could say for certain was that he wasn't authorized to act as agent for the 'new' private company, Florida Peninsula, and we were on our own if we wanted to know how financially sound it was.

Some day, maybe, when things are slow and that ex-insurance agent of ours doesn't have anything better to do he might get around to giving us a ring to let us know that a state government official entered an order that gives us the option of returning to Citizens Property Insurance. If he does, he's got our vote if he ever runs for public office.

Kevin McCarthy's already a government official but apparently he can't be bothered to let us know what he's been doing.