At the same time, Bill Hager was moving to Boca Raton from his native Iowa to
head NCCI, a 900-employee nonprofit that collects workers compensation and
employee injury stats and makes insurance rate recommendations to various state
governments, including Florida.
Twenty-two years later, the two 60-something lawyers, who took far different
paths into political life and spout far different views, are facing off against
each other. Both want to serve in the Florida House, representing 113,000 Palm
Beach County residents who live in the newly created District 89, which hugs the
coast from Boca Raton to Singer Island and is fairly evenly split between among
Republicans (37 percent), Democrats (36 percent) and independents (27 percent).
Gustafson, who recently rented a house in Lake Worth so he can claim residency
in the district, seems intent on making up for lost time. His late start put him
at a decided money disadvantage — he has raised about $50,000 to Hager’s roughly
$177,000 at last report. So, he is lobbing verbal missiles.
Branding his opponent as a shill for the insurance industry and a GOP puppet, he
said the legislature needs an infusion of new ideas. Although many of his ideas
smack of measures he championed decades ago, he insists he is the man to do it.
“Bill Hager hasn’t had an original thought in his mind since he left Iowa,” said
Gustafson, who spent the past decade in academia.
Hager, who served two terms on the Boca Raton City Council before being elected
to the state House in 2010, scoffs at Gustafson’s jabs. His background and
expertise is varied. He has worked as a math teacher, chief of staff for an Iowa
congressman and as both a private and government attorney.
Even his work in insurance, he said, is broad-based. As insurance commissioner
for his home state, he was a regulator. He said he’s also been an insurance
executive and now serves as a consultant to the industry. He also testifies in
lawsuits, sometimes for insurers but, he said, just as often for the injured.
Gustafson points to Hager’s opposition to what are known as claims bills as
evidence of his foe’s pro-insurer bent. If someone is injured by the wrongdoing
of the state or a county or municipal agency, the most he or she can collect is
$200,000. The only way to lift the cap is if the legislature passes a claims
bill. Dozens are filed each year.
This year, the cause célèbre was the legislature’s long-awaited decision to
compensate a Sunrise man who was brain-damaged when his car was struck in 1998
by a speeding Broward County sheriff’s deputy. It finally agreed to pay Eric
Brody $10.75 million of the $30 million a jury awarded him in 2006. Hager, as
usual, voted no.
“He is unwilling to vote for any claims bill no matter how meritorious, much
like an insurance company doesn’t like paying claims,” Gustafson said.
Hager said he opposes claims bills because lobbyists cash in. “It’s a sleazy
process,” he said. “Being from Iowa, I don’t like sleazy government.” This year
he proposed a measure to bar lobbyists from getting paid to solicit support for
claims bills. It died in committee.
A bigger insurance issue for most residents is the status of Citizens Property
Insurance Corp., the state-run insurer of last resort. It has come under attack
recently for driving up premiums for thousands of property owners by rejecting
discounts for strengthening homes.
To both, the recent flap underscores critical problems with the insurer, which
has 1.5 million customers, including about 140,000 in Palm Beach County. Hager
calls Citizens “a monster.” Pointing out that it covers $500 billion in property
but has only $7 billion in the bank, he said, “We need to reduce the size of
this monster so when the big blow comes, Citizens can pay the claims.”
Gustafson counters that Citizens needs reform, not reduction. An April report by
the Florida insurance consumer advocate said many private companies have far
less in reserves than Citizens and would be unable to cover losses from a small,
much less a major, storm. Gustafson advocates spreading the risk instead of
limiting Citizens’ reach to high-risk coastal customers. “You can’t say the free
market is going to take care of it, because they didn’t do it in Andrew,” he
said. A strong homegrown company that is focused on making buildings
hurricane-resistant is a far better option than relying on out-of-state,
profit-driven companies, he said.
The two also differ about how to create jobs to bolster the state’s sagging
economy. Hager wants to eliminate corporate taxes and reduce regulations to lure
new businesses. Gustafson proposes using existing state revenue, such as utility
taxes, to float bond issues to build roads, schools and research institutes.
Construction will create jobs and the facilities will position Floridians for
Hager dismissed Gustafson’s plan to borrow money as “total nonsense.” He said it
is typical of Gustafson’s approach as a “tax-and-spend” liberal.
While in the legislature, Gustafson earned the nickname “Whirlybird” for his
frenetic style. His penchant for talking irritated lawmakers on both sides of
the aisle. Today, he still enjoys lecturing. Ideas flow nonstop.
But, unlike his past tour in Tallahassee, he said he doesn’t want a leadership
post. That, he said, frees him from political shackles.“The Republicans seem to me to have no heart. We can’t sit there while Rome
burns,” he said. “As for Democrats, I want them to show more intelligence. They
need to get their heads out of the sand.”