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Five Questions for Jeff Atwater

July 8, 2012 - 6:00pm

Jeff Atwater was elected Floridas chief financial officer in 2010, after serving as Senate president the previous two years. He'd been elected to the state House of Representatives in 2000 and to the Senate in 2002. His district included Palm Beach and Broward counties. A self-described community banker for 25 years, Atwater was elected to the North Palm Beach Village Council in 1993.

Atwater, already a statewide officeholder, briefly considered running for the U.S. Senate in this election season. He became a backer of Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination in October 2011.

"Jeff Atwater's work to reduce spending and regulatory burdens has been critical in the effort to bring Florida out of this economic downturn," Romney said at the time. "I look forward to working with him to bring these principles of lower spending and less regulation to Washington."

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Jeff Atwater:

Q: Talk about why you're working to depopulate Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

ATWATER: If you were to look at the issue of why Citizens has grown so significantly over the last five to seven years, the issue has not been in what we used to call the high-risk account, or the coastal account. That account still has very close to the same number of policies that it had five or six years ago about 450,000 policies. The growth has occurred in other parts of the state, in what we call the PLA account, or the personal lines account, for far different reasons.

And it hasn't been about price because we often talk about the issue for Citizens ... that it's been suppressing rate. There is accuracy to that, which means that people have found their way there, or the private market may not be willing to come in at those prices and be able to take household out. That is true.

But the growth the 5,000 to 6,000 new accounts to Citizens have been in the PLA account of recent, and that has been because of the abuses that have been, frankly, occurring in the system, primarily in the sinkhole areas.

Q: Consumers have objected to the increases in Citizens' premiums.

ATWATER: People were still wondering, were they getting the straight answer on this is it really as severe as they were being led to believe by the insurance companies? And people have every right to be, I think, cautious of everything that an industry no matter what industry is telling them about the environment and their losses and their ability to be successful in your state.

But here's how we would know that it was at least a very real issue: Citizens took those policies in. In 2010, Citizens took in $32 million in sinkhole premiums, but paid out $245 million in sinkhole claims. Now, no insurance company could survive that.

Q: Other than transparency in state contracting your passion what's your legislative agenda for next year? Things that you're concerned about that didn't get done this year?

ATWATER: I think what you will likely see in the coming legislative session is more of an effort made to what we can do to create the environment where we're getting more and more of the misbehavior and the fraud out of the (insurance) system. This past year we did PIP (personal injury protection) on auto, but with the changes we have just made to sinkhole [coverage], what can we continue to do to have the private market believe it should come here and do business here? Because you can't depopulate Citizens, even if you increased rates, if there is nobody here in Florida wanting to write the policy.

And frankly, the private market players have been so afraid to do business here in Florida because the fraud has been so significant, whether it be in auto, whether it be in property, which would include fire, theft, windstorm

So as our new president gets his feet on the ground at Citizens and is able to size up the entire marketplace and the significant presence that Citizens has in market share, which is 23 percent of the market, then I'm hoping that sometime late summer or early fall we would work with the president of Citizens and the Citizens board to look at some legislative initiatives that would be right for the coming spring.

Q: Are Floridians more fraudulent than residents of other states?

ATWATER: [Laughs.] Floridians are pioneering people. I've spent my entire life, I'm fifth generation I've never been around hard-working, honest people like I have here in Florida.

I think what happens is, you have a demographic where some who will turn to Florida in their later years in life can be vulnerable to types of financial fraud. And so I think it might attract a certain element to come here and take advantage of that.

I think you have seen public policy that tried to stretch the generosity of consumerism that it created too broad of an opportunity for fraudsters to try to take advantage of those systems. So, for instance, in sinkhole the broadness of the policy allowed certain people to take advantage of it, and now that we have tightened it up, I believe we will have predominantly addressed the situation.

I believe that when you have a policy that tries to offer the benefit of the doubt that there are players who will come here to take advantage of those, and they did. And I'm hoping by the changes that we've made over the last couple of years, both in property and in auto, that the beneficiary is to be the consumer.

The fraudsters were not pioneering Floridians, I can assure you.

Q: It's hard to imagine you in another job, but in April you briefly considered running against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

ATWATER: We did seriously consider the U.S. Senate race because I believe the greatest crisis facing the country is not the challenges facing uniquely the state of Florida, but the expansion of government and the extraction of resources from the people of this country to government to try to perform functions that were never envisioned by the framers of the Constitution and in fact were going to cripple this country both fiscally and morally.

And I felt so strongly that with the increasing debt and the increasing spending and the bailouts that we were watching that that was at least a debate I needed to engage.

And I determined that I was very fortunate to have been elected by the people of this state to serve in this capacity, as their fiscal watchdog over how their money is spent, and I asked for this job and I have the greatest job in the world. I can still speak about the other issues.

I know I made the right call.

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