TALLAHASSEE -- Florida lawmakers sauntered to the end of their annual legislative session Friday, passing a controversial plan that could expand the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and freeze its rates until 2009.
The property-insurance measure capped an unusually quiet final day of the session, as lawmakers stopped working nearly two hours early and let numerous bills die.
Perhaps most far-reaching, lawmakers didn't act on a heavily lobbied auto-insurance bill. As a result, the state's no-fault auto-insurance system could end later this year.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Charlie Crist gathered for a traditional post-session celebration in the rotunda between the House and Senate chambers and declared the session a success.
Crist pointed, in part, to the property-insurance bill, which he pushed to try to hold down rates for homeowners. He said the measure will build on reforms lawmakers passed during a special session on property insurance in January.
"It's huge," Crist said. "It was the second half of finishing the job."
But House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said the session was disappointing. He said, for example, lawmakers failed to pass a bill to try to bolster the KidCare program, which provides subsidized health insurance to children in low-income and working-class families.
Gelber called it "morally wrong" to leave hundreds of thousands of children without health insurance and said he hopes lawmakers will take up the issue during a special session scheduled in June.
The property-insurance bill, which passed overwhelmingly in both chambers, includes provisions that will allow Citizens to compete more freely with private insurers for customers and extend a rate freeze from January 2008 to January 2009. Crist argues increased competition will help lower rates.
Also, the bill will prevent national insurance companies from creating Florida-only subsidiaries to sell property insurance. That stems from frustrations about national insurers making billions of dollars in profits, while Florida homeowners have faced skyrocketing rates.
But opponents argued that expanding Citizens carries too big a financial risk. If Citizens does not have enough money to pay hurricane claims, insurance policyholders across the state -- including those who are not Citizens customers -- have to help cover the deficit.
Citizens ran up about $2.2 billion in deficits paying claims in 2004 and 2005. Rep. Pat Patterson, a DeLand Republican who also is an insurance agent, said his clients are incensed about possibly getting charged extra to cover Citizens' claims in other parts of the state.
"They absolutely hate them (the extra charges)," said Patterson, one of 10 House members who voted against the bill. "They think they're unfair."
The property-insurance bill was the biggest issue in an almost anti-climactic end to the 60-day session. Ordinarily, the final day of the session is frenzied, with lawmakers meeting late into the night to try to ram through bills.
But the House and Senate didn't start meeting Friday until 10 a.m. and planned to stop at 6 p.m. As the House voted on a couple of final bills about 4 p.m., few members paid attention, instead shaking hands with each other and posing for pictures.
The highest-profile issue of the session evaporated Wednesday, when leaders said they would come back in a June special session to try to pass property-tax cuts. Also, lawmakers approved a $71.9 billion budget Thursday, taking care of the only measure they are required to pass each year.
Still, numerous bills died when the session ended.
Along with the KidCare overhaul, they included a Crist-backed proposal to spend $20 million on stem-cell research and a proposal -- fueled by incidents in Volusia County and other areas -- to classify attacks on homeless people as hate crimes.
"It (the final day) sure had its silent moments, didn't it?" said Linda Merrell, an Ormond Beach children's advocate who lobbies on the KidCare issue.
The lack of an auto-insurance bill could have the broadest implications. The no-fault system, which covers up to $10,000 in medical bills for accident victims, is scheduled to end Oct. 1 unless lawmakers re-enact it.
Many auto insurers lobbied heavily for allowing the no-fault system to die. They argue the system, also known as the personal-injury protection (or PIP) system, is filled with fraud and unnecessarily drives up insurance premiums.
"Our position is PIP is a rip-off, and today the consumers of Florida scored a big victory," State Farm lobbyist Mark Delegal said.
But Crist said he probably will seek to add the no-fault issue to the June special session. He, along with hospitals, chiropractors and other health providers, say the $10,000 in PIP coverage helps pay for medical care.
"Ten thousand's better than none," Crist said.
Florida lawmakers ended their annual 60-day session Friday in Tallahassee. Here is some of what they did -- and didn't -- do:
· Lawmakers passed a bill, pushed by Gov. Charlie Crist, that could lead to increased competition between the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and private insurers. The bill also will freeze Citizens' rates until January 2009.
· Lawmakers did not pass a bill to re-enact the state's no-fault auto-insurance system. As a result, the no-fault system is set to be eliminated Oct. 1.
· Lawmakers let numerous bills die. Among them: a proposal to spend $20 million a year on stem-cell research and a proposal to overhaul the KidCare program, which provides subsidized health insurance to children from low-income and working-class families.