Senate, House pass wind pool bills

Published 4:29 pm Friday, February 2, 2007

Bills aimed at stabilizing insurance rates statewide and encouraging redevelopment on the hurricane-ravaged Mississippi coast have cleared both houses of the Legislature, but lawmakers say there’s still a long way to go.

The two bills were drafted to beef up the Mississippi Windstorm Underwriting Association — the insurer of last resort, often called the wind pool — that provides coverage in areas most insurers deem to risky.

The legislation “should level off insurance rates, keep companies in Mississippi and make insurance more affordable statewide,” said Senate Insurance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl.

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Any company that writes policies in the state must pay an assessment to the wind pool, which provides coverage in the six southernmost counties. Companies that offer policies in the high-risk areas can write themselves out of the assessment, but many have chosen not to do so.

After Hurricane Katrina left the coast in shambles in August 2005, policy holders statewide saw rate increases as companies tried to cover their assessments for the wind pool.

Rates on the coast more than doubled in some cases, and the prohibitively high costs of coverage have stagnated redevelopment in some areas, officials say.

Many insurance companies have been hesitant to write new policies until lawmakers make improvements in the system, Kirby said.

“This is not just a coast bill, this is a state bill,” Kirby told the Senate.

Kirby said the two bills are “80 to 90 percent the same.”

The main difference is the makeup of the board that would oversee the wind pool, he said. The Senate version passed Thursday calls for several members to be insurance agents or representatives, while the House bill passed Wednesday does not.

Sen. Gloria Williamson, D-Philadelphia, told Kirby, “It looks like you’re asking for problems putting (insurance) agents or representatives on here.”

Kirby said that was just one of the issues on which lawmakers would likely compromise before a bill is sent to the governor for approval, adding that “there’s no doubt in my mind this bill is going to conference” for more debate.

“This bill still has a long way to go,” he said after the meeting.

Sen. Gary Jackson, R-French Camp, was the only person to vote against the Senate version.

He suggested it was not the insurance companies at fault, rather it was the wind pool policy that is driving up rates throughout the state.

“The reason the person in Iuka can’t get insurance is not because of the companies, it’s because of the regulations,” Jackson said.

Kirby responded that without the wind pool providing coverage in south Mississippi, the coast would “dry up and blow away.”

The bills are Senate Bill 3050 and House Bill 1500.