Florida plans a legislative special session on taxes and insurance post-Ian

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Cars and debris from washed away homes line a canal in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, one week after the passage of Hurricane Ian. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

By Jim Turner ©2022 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday he plans to call a special legislative session to provide property-tax relief to people affected by Hurricane Ian, with the session possibly addressing property-insurance issues.

DeSantis also said he planned to issue an executive order that would delay tax-payment deadlines in storm-impacted counties until lawmakers can put changes into law. The order would apply to counties that have received a disaster designation from the federal government.

“We’ll have those dates (for a special session) nailed down very soon. But it will certainly be before the end of the calendar year,” DeSantis said during an appearance in Fort Myers Beach. “And I think that there may be a whole bunch of other stuff that’s storm-related that we may be talking about.”

DeSantis did not immediately release the executive order and did not take questions during the appearance.

Florida’s property-insurance market has long been troubled, with private insurers dropping customers and raising rates because of financial losses. Since February, six property insurers have been deemed insolvent.

In a special session in May, lawmakers took a series of steps to try to stabilize the system, including earmarking $2 billion in tax dollars to provide additional reinsurance to property insurers that otherwise might not be able to buy the crucial backup coverage on the private market.

However, the market continues to sputter, with homeowners flooding into the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. for coverage.

“There were some very positive reforms that were done (during the special session). But there were also things that we wanted to do that the Legislature at that time was not willing to do,” DeSantis said. “I think we will be able to do that in this special session.”

Incoming House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said another special session on property insurance is long overdue.

“Obviously, we will need to see what they propose,” Driskell, who will become minority leader after the November elections, said in a statement. “Our last special session was specifically about property insurance, and it didn’t even come close to solving the problem. We’ll need to see specific plans and how they’ll actually help the people of Florida. This is not the time for half-measures.”

DeSantis’ announcement came ahead of his debate Monday in Fort Pierce with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, who has focused on property insurance in recent stump speeches and television commercials. Crist has called the May special session “special for the insurance industry.”

“For years, Floridians have been begging Ron DeSantis to do something — anything — to lower property insurance rates. He’s failed twice,” Crist said in a statement released by his campaign on Thursday. “Why would we expect the third time to be the charm?”

DeSantis said the special session will be timed so lawmakers can retroactively allow residents who sustained damage from Ian to benefit from a tax change approved this year. That change, Jan. 1, is slated to offer property-tax rebates on residential properties rendered uninhabitable by catastrophic events.

Crafted as part of the response to last year’s fatal condominium collapse in Surfside, the law creates rebates when residential properties are rendered uninhabitable for 30 days or more by catastrophic events.

The executive order would delay property tax payments on personal and commercial properties destroyed or otherwise made uninhabitable in 26 counties designated for disaster assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I do not have the ability as governor to eliminate property tax obligations,” DeSantis said. “So, this will delay that payment date.”

Lee County Property Appraiser Matt Caldwell, a former state legislator, said about 100,000 of the approximately 550,000 parcels in his county will need to be “significantly reviewed over the next eight months.”

The special session agenda might also include additional funding to help Southwest Florida communities slammed by the Category 4 hurricane, which made landfall Sept. 28 in Lee and Charlotte counties, DeSantis said.

“If you’re giving property tax rebates to taxpayers, property owners, you know, that’s great for them, but obviously, that revenue funds essential services,” DeSantis said. “So, there may be a need for us to help with a local fire department or something. And all that stuff will be on the table.”

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