Ron DeSantis, the rightwing Republican governor of Florida and a likely 2024 presidential candidate, has handed favors to his big-money donors in the insurance industry at the expense of cash-strapped residents of his state, a new report claims.
The report, “How Ron DeSantis sold out Florida homeowners”, draws on contributions from the American Federation of Teachers union, the non-profit Center for Popular Democracy, the voting rights group Florida Rising and the dark money watchdog Hedge Clippers.
The report pinpoints the insurance industry as a crucial underwriter of DeSantis’s meteoric rise to the governor’s mansion and as a potential White House contender – and alleges that this may have influenced his decision making.
DeSantis, who ran a successful re-election campaign last year, and Friends of Ron DeSantis, a political action committee that supported him, have taken a combined $3.9m in contributions from insurance industry players. If donations to the Republican party of Florida since 1 January 2019 – days before DeSantis assumed office – are added, this total swells to more than $9.9m.
The authors’ analysis of campaign finance data also found that two property casualty insurance firms donated a combined total of $125,000 to DeSantis’s 2023 inaugural celebration, which marked the beginning of his final term as governor in the term-limited state.
It is no coincidence, the report’s authors suggest, that DeSantis’s administration has put the insurance companies’ interests ahead of Florida’s own citizens, who are battling homeowner insurance rates nearly triple the national average.
They write: “Instead of fixing problems with Florida’s property insurance industry, DeSantis has lavished the industry with favors and benefits while everyday Floridians suffer.”
These benefits have included the creation of $2bn taxpayer-funded reinsurance fund. Such funds exist to insure the insurers and prevent them being wiped out during a catastrophic event. Usually, insurance companies buy such coverage on the open market but, in Florida, DeSantis chose to use tax dollars to provide access to a state-subsidised insurance fund.
Second, the Florida legislature passed a bill that stripped policyholders of the ability to recover legal fees when suing insurance companies that refuse to honour legitimate claims. DeSantis trumpeted the signing of this bill on his official webpage.
Home insurance is a hot-button issue in Florida, where communities vulnerable to the climate crisis face increasingly frequent and severe hurricanes and other weather events. Last year Hurricane Ian caused record levels of property damage and recent storms flooded some Fort Lauderdale neighbourhoods for more than a week.
The report notes: “Communities of color and low-income neighborhoods with significant climate risks face crumbling infrastructure, soaring insurance premiums, and a lack of public investment. Florida cities like Jacksonville (where one in three residents is Black) and Orlando (where one in three is Latino) are at the highest risk nationally, based on the number of properties at substantial climate risk.”
For many, it is getting worse. This year insurance price hikes are expected to average 40%, according to the Insurance Information Institute. This follows a reported 50% climb during the DeSantis administration, industry analyst John Rollins found. The increases are forcing Florida homeowners to forgo coverage at nearly twice the national rate or quit the state altogether.
Tracy-Ann Brown, 53, said by phone from Miami: “The prices are horrendous. Our insurance went up to $1,800 per month and I could not afford it with my husband’s salary and my salary put together. We had a home that we had to take the insurance off and, unfortunately, our house caught fire on Easter Sunday and we didn’t have insurance on it.”
Brown, a community liaison specialist for public schools, added: “The insurance everywhere here is crazy from Broward all the way to Dade. I’ve asked so many people and they’ve said the same thing. Their insurance has gone sky high.”
The report argues that the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation is dominated by industry insiders who approved insurance price hikes at greater rates than were seen under previous governors.
“Evidence is mounting that big insurance has blocked proposals that would have lowered costs for consumers,” it continues. “A 2022 proposal by state senator Jeff Brandes claimed to reduce insurance and save Floridians ‘$750 million to $1 billion a year’ by allowing smaller insurance companies to access the catastrophic reinsurance fund. The insurance-heavy business lobby reportedly blocked the plan.”
The authors draw a contrast with Louisiana, which they say has a more robust property casualty insurance market despite similar hurricane risks. Unlike DeSantis’s insurance industry handouts, they contend, Louisiana conditions its subsidies to the insurance industry on increased participation in the state property insurance market.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said: “Floridians are suffering from the threat of floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters, and homeowners are increasingly at risk of losing it all because they simply cannot afford spiraling insurance premiums.”
She added: “Where is the governor? Well, he has picked sides: when given the choice of helping Florida’s working families or doing the bidding of the insurance lobby, Ron DeSantis puts his donors first. This report joins the dots. We can’t allow DeSantis to dismantle the livelihoods of millions of Floridians in the service of corporate interests.”
DeSantis has not yet formally announced a 2024 campaign but is expected to do so after Florida’s legislative session ends later this month. In the meantime he has travelled to early-voting states to promote his new book, has met with donors and just returned from an overseas trade mission.
The governor has also become embroiled in a legal battle with Disney. Days after the company sued him in federal court for what it described as retaliation for opposing the state’s so-called “don’t say gay” bill, members of Disney World’s governing board – made up DeSantis appointees – filed a lawsuit to countersue the entertainment giant.
A CBS News-YouGov poll released on Monday showed former president Donald Trump leading a hypothetical Republican primary field with 58% of the vote, followed by DeSantis with 22%.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
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