BRADENTON, Fla. — A proposed tax-credit program designed to raise money for the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, and reduce its reliance on the bond market, is raising eyebrows and questions.
The Florida Insurance Premium Tax Pre-Payment Program was slipped into a budget bill in the last few days of the legislative session that ended March 9, escaping the traditional vetting process, analysis and public comment.
The decision whether or not to implement the program is ultimately up to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to receive the budget bill early next month.
Under the tax-credit program, the state would sell insurance companies up to $1.5 billion in tax credits for paying their premium taxes early.
The funds from early payments would be loaned to the so-called Cat Fund as a form of liquidity to make reinsurance payments if the state is hit by a hurricane.
The tax-credit loans, including interest if required, would be paid by over time by the Cat Fund, which is a state-run, nonprofit reinsurer.
The 11-page bill outlines the program, though detail about its ultimate structure is unknown.
The unknowns about the program may be more of a hindrance than assistance to the Cat Fund, according to the agency’s executive director, Jack Nicholson.
“There are obviously a lot of issues that have not been fully aired and discussed in this process,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m not sure any legislator would have understood that right off the bat without consulting with bond counsel and other people in our organization.”
Nicholson said he verbally discussed the concept of the tax-credit program with lobbyists before the legislative session, though he did not see the exact language of the bill until was approved.
He questioned if the tax-credit loans would be considered parity debt and how that would affect the fund’s $5 billion of outstanding bonds.
“Would this expose the state to Cat Fund risk where we would borrow future revenues from the state?” he asked. “That’s never been done before. The Cat Fund is not considered a debt of the state.”
Nicholson said there may also be constitutional issues associated with the way the bill was passed since it was tacked onto a conforming bill under a department that does not oversee the Cat Fund. The conforming bill covers the tax-credit program and new requirements for the state’s workers’ compensation program.
Because the bill includes two different programs, it may violate Florida’s rule requiring bills to cover only a single subject, Nicholson said.
If the program is implemented by the governor, it requires that a manager be hired to market the tax-credit program to insurance companies.
“The price of that would have to be negotiated,” Nicholson said. “We don’t know how much this program would raise or how much it would cost.”
Gary Guzzo, a lobbyist with the firm Floridian Partners LLC, said the program’s “nuts and bolts” would be negotiated when the state seeks requests for proposals from companies interested in running it.
Monetizing tax credits for the Cat Fund is similar to the way tax-credit programs have been established in other states and used as a way to raise capital, he said.
“This is not debt,” Guzzo said. “It is monetization of a future revenue stream. It creates funding for the Cat Fund in the event that there is [a hurricane] and money needs to be paid.”
If the Cat Fund experiences a shortage in its revenue stream to pay back the tax-credit loans, the agency can place a small assessment on policies similar to the way assessments are currently used to secure the fund’s outstanding bonds, Guzzo said.
The tax-credit program would provide liquidity at less expense than taxable or tax-exempt debt because of the current low interest-rate environment, he said.
“There’s zero impact to the general revenue fund of the state,” said Guzzo, who presented the concept in private meetings at the state capital along with representatives from Wells Fargo.
Guzzo is also a managing member of Proteus Capital Holdings LLC, a firm that represents banks and financial institutions in the sale of tax credits to insurance companies.
When asked what he expected in return for his work on the program, he said, “I would hope to get some of the fees out of the sale of the tax credits, particularly for the sale and presentation to the [insurance] carriers.
Guzzo said he understands the investment portfolios of insurers, and he understands how the Cat Fund works “and how it can recoup fees.”
The insurance industry is “a big supporter” of the Cat Fund, Guzzo said, adding that it plays a large role in property and casualty insurance in Florida.
The Hurricane Catastrophe Fund was created in 1993 to address the crumbling insurance market following Hurricane Andrew, which decimated portions of southeast Florida.
The losses forced some insurance companies into insolvency, and some to exit the state because of the risk.
The fund has a private-letter ruling from the Internal Revenue Service, and provides low-cost reinsurance to private carriers as well as the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
Guzzo said that the legislation does not require that the state create the tax-credit program, and it gives the governor the option to use it as a tool to provide the Cat Fund with pre-event liquidity.
As the program is envisioned, Nicholson said the benefits are unknown, putting him in the position of having to implement a program with no idea how much it would cost or how much money it would raise.
“It could be problematic to our structural needs,” he said. “I don’t know if the juice is worth the squeeze.”
Nicholson said he did not know if the tax-credit program would have an effect on the Cat Fund’s ratings, though that is something to take into consideration.
The fund’s bonds are rated AA by Fitch Ratings, Aa3 by Moody’s Investors Service and AA-minus by Standard & Poor’s.
The governor is expected to receive the $70 billion budget for fiscal 2013 in early April after approval by the Legislature. Once the budget is on Scott’s desk, he has 15 days to sign it into law without changes or use his line-item veto to cut programs and expenses.
Scott could also allow the budget to become law without his signature, though that is unlikely since he cut $615 million from the current budget before approving it.