As Special Session Winds Down, TWIA Fight Continues

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst gestures toward Senate Democrats as they leave the chamber to caucus on Sunday afternoon May 29, 2011.
Lt. Governor David Dewhurst gestures toward Senate Democrats as they leave the chamber to caucus on Sunday afternoon May 29, 2011.

Calling it "absolutely" must-pass legislation, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said this afternoon he is working with senators to hammer out a bill to reform the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. His optimistic pronouncement came after a Senate panel earlier in the day was unable to muster the votes to approve the bill — one of the key reasons lawmakers are in special session.

"I think we're going to reach consensus," Dewhurst said.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, didn't get enough support in the Senate Business and Commerce Committee this morning to pass out the TWIA bill. In fact, it appeared he was the only one supporting the measure, and he did so only because his name was on it. With fewer than 10 days remaining in the special session, Carona said he hoped that lawmakers could find a compromise that would eliminate the need for a second 30-day special session this summer.

"We've had too many cooks in the kitchen," Carona said.

The measure is meant to overhaul the claims process for homeowners along the coast whose properties are damaged by hurricanes and to ensure that TWIA, the state's insurer of last resort, remains solvent. But lawmakers are unable to agree on how much to limit homeowners' ability to sue TWIA and to recover damages when the agency fails to honor its policies. The House wants a very strict bill; the Senate's isn't as stringent.

The version of HB 3 that the Senate considered today, Carona said, was the product of a multitude of lawmakers and special interests, and the result wasn't great. "If I hadn't been asked to carry the bill, I wouldn't support it either," he said. Carona said the involvement of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which wants steep legal requirements, and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which wants less tough ones, along with Dewhurst, have negatively affected lawmakers' ability to write a bill that is fair to coastal residents.

After the hearing, Carona said he would ask Dewhurst to allow him to rewrite the measure in a fashion that the Senate could support. If Dewhurst won't agree, Carona said he would ask the lieutenant governor to give the bill to someone else.

But a new Senate version of the bill could leave lawmakers in a predicament similar to what they faced in the regular legislative session, when there were different House and Senate measures and they had very little time to work out a compromise.

Carona told the committee at the outset of Monday's hearing that if they didn't pass a bill, Dewhurst might set up a select committee of senators who would approve a bill and send the measure to the floor.

Dewhurst said this afternoon that during a meeting Carona had not asked to rewrite the bill. "He didn't bring it up," Dewhurst said. And Dewhurst said he wasn't ready yet to transfer the bill to another committee. He said he planned to talk more with coastal legislators to ensure that they developed a bill that would be fair to homeowners and also keep TWIA financially sound. Lawmakers are concerned that without major changes to the laws that allow homeowners to sue TWIA, another active hurricane season — like the one expected this year — could leave the quasi-governmental association insolvent. "We want to be sure it's fixed in a manner that's fair to everybody," Dewhurst said.

Dewhurst said he got heavily involved in the TWIA negotiations last week when he became worried that lawmakers were running out of time. With fewer than two weeks remaining in the special session, Dewhurst said the measure needs to be out of committee and eligible for a full Senate vote soon.

During the morning hearing, senators questioned whether the bill was fair to homeowners on the coast because it would so severely limit their ability to access damages, and it would change the selection process for judges in TWIA cases.

"I'm afraid this bill is a disservice to all our coastal Texans who now face another hurricane season, and I will pray for them," said state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville.

He wrote a letter to Dewhurst this afternoon urging him to support the Senate's version of the TWIA bill. He said the current iteration of the bill punishes coastal homeowners for TWIA's past wrongful acts that led to an onslaught of claims against the agency because it did not honor their policies. "I am mystified as to why the Legislature would create legislation that strives to protect TWIA when it acts like a corrupt Wall Street firm," Lucio wrote.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said the current bill could get coastal senators thrown out of office. He asked Carona to postpone a committee vote today to allow he and other senators to ask Dewhurst to let them to work on a measure that didn't so strictly limit homeowners' access to take legal action against TWIA. Senators, he said, should not be bullied by the desires of the House.

"We passed a law against bullying this session," Whitmire said.

Asked if, in light of his frustration, he would support a measure by state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, to abolish TWIA, Carona said that the agency probably does need to go but there isn't enough time in the current legislative session to get rid of it.

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