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Sinkhole repair bill falters in Senate panel


Published:   |   Updated: March 6, 2014 at 02:28 PM

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would create a sinkhole repair program for Citizens Property Insurance customers sunk Wednesday under the skepticism of a Senate panel.

The General Government Appropriations subcommittee ran out of time while discussing the bill (SB 416), meaning no vote was taken.

Chair Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, promised bill sponsor Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, that the measure would be heard first at the group's meeting next week.

But Democrats and Republicans alike continued to question how the bill would work, and even whether it's ultimately necessary.

“I'm really trying to get to the bottom of why we need this bill,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Complicating matters is lawmakers' lingering resentment toward Citizens, which many still complain is too big and too expensive. Hays has called the insurer “one of the biggest problems the state of Florida has.”

The Suncoast is known as “sinkhole alley” and Citizens, a nonprofit government corporation, is the insurer of last resort for homes in sinkhole-prone areas.

Simpson has said his bill will help ensure sinkhole damage gets repaired properly and prevent policyholders from pocketing settlements without fixing their homes.

Under the bill, policyholders with a sinkhole claim could select from a pre-screened pool of qualified contractors, who would guarantee repairs with a 5-year warranty, backed by Citizens.

But Latvala said he had a sinkhole claim with Citizens on a rental property he owns and “there was never any option of getting cash and not finishing” the repairs.

Citizens vice president Christine Ashburn explained that, in fact, in most cases the company is not cutting checks directly to contractors or homeowners.

Simpson said homeowners and Citizens often disagree on how badly a sinkhole has damaged their property. There are more than 2,000 active lawsuits across Florida relating to disputes between insurers and policyholders over sinkhole damage.

Having a uniform repair program “gives clarity ... and confidence to homeowners that their home will be repaired properly, in a timely fashion,” Simpson said.

A companion bill (HB 129) is in the House but doesn't have its next hearing scheduled.

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