Insurance Commissioner tries to fix fatal bug in windstorm statute

Whether policyholders of the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association get paid following a significant storm during the coming summer of 2014 is likely to depend on a difficult legal question: whether the Texas Insurance Commissioner has the power to write regulations that clearly alter the language of a statute enacted by the Texas legislature where she believes, with reason, that the statute as written makes no economic sense.  The good news is that the new Texas Insurance Commissioner, Julia Rathgeber, agrees with an argument first propounded on this blog: there is a serious “bug” in the provisions of the Texas Insurance Code governing issuance of securities to pay for losses following a significant storm. That bug could jeopardize the entire system of post-event bonding that is supposed to cover for the shocking lack of cash TWIA, the largest windstorm insurer in Texas, actually has available to pay claims. Recognizing a problem exists is, after all, usually the first step for a cure.  It’s certainly better than pretending the problem doesn’t exist and hoping no injured party or judge will notice. The problem, however, is that it is not clear that the Commissioner, acting alone and without legislative action, has the power to cure this problem in a way that could cost other Texans considerable sums of money.

Matters would be far better if all sides in the enduring controversy over TWIA funding could agree to a minimalist statutory fix before the 2014 hurricane season begins.  The stakeholders could then then ask Governor Perry for a short special session to enact the fix as law.  The Governor might accommodate if almost all legislators agreed to the fix and the agenda were kept narrow.  Commissioner Rathgeber’s regulations contain one possible fix.  A blog entry I put forth last spring contains some others. None would “cure TWIA” — that’s a very hard problem that will likely take at least a legislative session. But at least the statutory scheme would function as well as was hoped for by the legislature. Right now it resembles a bad computer program that is about to crash from a giant bug if nature ever pushes the “Hurricane Key.” Unfortunately, for reasons that will be discussed below, it looks like getting agreement on even a simple statutory fix will be difficult.

Texas Insurance Commissioner Julia RathgeberAs a result of the Commissioner’s questionable authority to enact the changes she wants and the likelihood that a coastal resident hurt by her fix would challenge it in court (and refuse to pay in the interim), absent legislative action, it is unlikely that TWIA will have any ability swiftly to pay significant claims this summer. By “significant”, I mean those generated  by a respectable storm that causes insured losses in excess of TWIA’s cash position ($200 million to maybe $400 million) and whatever reinsurance, if any, drops down low enough to pay claims right above the cash reserve.  Lenders who just might otherwise be willing to advance TWIA money based on anticipated revenue from premium surcharges may be unwilling to do where there is no secure statutory basis for demanding at least some of the surcharges in the first place.

The problem

Let’s go through the problem that the Commissioner’s proposed regulations is intended to solve. The Commissioner actually outlines it quite well in her explanation of the proposed regulations now undergoing hearings, but I think my explanation is a bit more direct. The basic idea is that, following a tropical storm that wipes out TWIA’s cash position, TWIA can go to the borrowing market.  It can request issue three types of securities cleverly named Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3. The securities are actually issued by the Texas Public Finance Authority (TPFA), not TWIA itself. Even though TPFA issues the securities, under section 2210.615(a) of the Insurance Code they are explicitly not backed by the full faith and credit of Texas. Texas taxpayers are not on the hook to repay the borrowings if the statutory mechanism fails.

What distinguishes the three securities TWIA may issue when it runs out of money is mainly the source of repayment.  To oversimplify just a bit, Class 1 is to be repaid by TWIA policyholders through “net premium and revenue.” Class 2 is to be repaid 30% by assessments on the insurers that compose TWIA (people who write property/casualty insurance in Texas) and 70% via premium surcharges on most property insurance policies written on the Texas coast. This latter group includes not only TWIA policies but also non-TWIA homeowner or wind insurance policies, business fire insurance, personal automobile policies, and commercial automobile policies. Class 3 is to be repaid by assessments on the insurers that compose TWIA. Class 1 can be up to $1 billion. Class 2 can be up to $1 billion; and Class 3 can be up to $500 million. And the borrowings are supposed to take place in sequence.  No Class 3 before all Class 2 has been issued.  No Class 2 before all Class 1 has been issued.

There’s a big “however,” however. What happens if lenders are worried that TWIA policyholders won’t be able to pay enough in premium surcharges to amortize the loan?  In 2011, the legislature recognized this possibility and came up with a plan. You can find it in section 2210.6136 of the Texas Insurance Code, which the most recent regulatory proposal cites frequently. To the extent that the Class 1 bonds would not sell, what I have called “Class 2 Alternative” bonds can be issued. According to the statute — and this is the bug — the first $500 million (or, in some cases less) is to be repaid the same way Class 1 bonds are to be repaid: using premiums from TWIA policyholders.  The remainder of the $1 billion in Class 2 Alternative bonds are to be repaid the way ordinary Class 2 bonds are to be repaid.

The problem, as the Commissioner has recognized, is that, if the Class 1 Bonds won’t sell because lenders don’t trust TWIA policyholders to have the money to amortize the bonds, it is unlikely that they will trust “Class 2 Alternative” bonds that have exactly the same payment source. As the official explanation of the proposed regulations states, the statute has “the effect of treating class 2 public securities issued under Insurance Code §2210.6136 as class 1 public securities, which are repayable by premium and revenue assessments.

The paradox is well stated by the Commissioner:

If the association [TWIA] can issue Class 2 public securities that are to be repaid by premium, then this means the association is capable of issuing class 1 public securities. This eliminates the need for having an alternative to issue class 2 public securities when class 1 public securities.  It is not feasible to read the statute to require TPFA to issue all of the class 1 public securities it can based on the association’s net premium and other revenue, and then expect TPFA to issue additional public securities using the same funding sources simply because the name of the public security has changed.  Such a reading would render Insurance Code §2210.6136 meaningless.

The domino effect

The problem is even deeper, however, than this passage indicates. As I have previously noted and as the Commissioner’s explanation confirms: “TPFA cannot issue the class 3 public securities until after TPFA has issued $1 billion in class 2 public securities on behalf of the association for that catastrophe year.” In other words, if the Class 1 bonds fail, the Class 2 Alternative Bonds are likely to fail too.  And if the Class 2 Alternative Bonds fail, the Class 3 Bonds fail. There’s a domino effect. TWIA ends up with no cash to pay claims and no ability to borrow at all!

So, this is the disaster waiting for Texas if it does nothing.  It is the disaster the Commissioner is trying to avoid. Her proposal is effectively to rewrite section 2210.6136 of the statute and make all of the Class 2 Alternative Bonds payable the same way regular Class 2 Bonds would be repaid: 30% by assessments on the insurers that compose TWIA (people who write property/casualty insurance in Texas) and 70% via premium surcharges on most property policies written on the Texas coast.  To quote section 5.4127(a) of the proposed regulations:

(a) All Public Security Obligations and Public Security Administrative Expenses for Class 2 Public Securities issued under §5.4126 of this division (relating to Alternative for
Issuing Class 2 and Class 3 Public Securities) must be paid 30 percent from member assessments and 70 percent from premium surcharges on those Catastrophe Area insurance policies subject to premium surcharge under Insurance Code §2210.613.

 

The proposed regulations potentially rescue TWIA policyholders from disaster.  They provide a more plausible source of repayment and they don’t result in the Class 3 securities succumbing to the domino effect.

The Bên Tre analogy

There is only one problem.  The Commissioner has destroyed section 2210.6136 in order to save it. The law would be little different under the Commissioner’s proposal than if the legislature had never bothered with section 2210.6136 in 2011 and just kept things the way they were in 2009, except to say that Class 2 bonds can be issued first if the Class 1 bonds can’t be fully issued.  The two different subparts of section 2210.6136 elaborately specifying how each part of the money is to be repaid would appear to be unnecessary.

The legal issue

I’m not going to opine today on whether the Commissioner is within her rights in undoing a legislative enactment whose sense is indeed difficult if not outright impossible to discern. But this isn’t the somewhat simpler case of the Commissioner fixing a clearly omitted “not” in a statute or correcting some punctuation.  This is undoing an entire provision when the legislature has been alerted to the problem and has chosen to do nothing about it. Although a Texas court can choose to interpret a statute contrary to its actual words where doing so clearly fulfills the intent of the legislature, it must do so cautiously.  As set forth by the Texas Supreme Court in Presidio Independent School Dist. v. Scott, 309 S.W.3d 927 (Tex. 2010), “We thus construe the text according to its plain and common meaning unless a contrary intention is apparent from the context or unless such a construction leads to absurd results.” There are many cases, including Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services v. Mega Child Care, Inc., 145 S.W.3d 170 (Tex. 2004), that say about the same thing. Indeed, in my brief research I had to go back to 1898 and the case of Edwards v. Morton, 92 Tex. 152 (1898) to find a case in which the highest court found the requisite level of absurdity to exist. Perhaps there are more recent cases that some quick research did not disclose but I suspect there will not be many.

The United States Supreme Court summarizes prevailing judicial attitudes well on the subject.

Courts have sometimes exercised a high degree of ingenuity in the effort to find justification for wrenching from the words of a statute a meaning which literally they did not bear in order to escape consequences thought to be absurd or to entail great hardship. But an application of the principle so nearly approaches the boundary between the exercise of the judicial power and that of the legislative power as to call rather for great caution and circumspection in order to avoid usurpation of the latter. Monson v. Chester, 22 Pick. (Mass.) 385, 387. It is not enough merely that hard and objectionable or absurd consequences, which probably were not within the contemplation of the framers, are produced by an act of legislation. Laws enacted with good intention, when put to the test, frequently, and to the surprise of the lawmaker himself, turn out to be mischievous, absurd, or otherwise objectionable. But in such case the remedy lies with the lawmaking authority, and not with the courts.

Crooks v. Harrelson, 282 U.S. 55 (1930) (Sutherland, J.)

Clearly, what is good for the judiciary is probably good for the Insurance Commissioner as well. Commissioner Rathgeber no matter how outstanding her intentions and no matter how irksome her opposition will have an uphill battle defending her reconstruction of the statute governing the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. She will surely face hostile judges when, contrary to the literal language of the statute, she seeks to impose an additional surcharge on some coastal Texas homeowner with insurance on a run down car who never bought a TWIA policy and indeed doesn’t even have a home to insure.

Residents of the coast have apparently caught on (see here, here and here) that the proposed regulatory change theoretically hurts them.  Under the statute as written, even if there were more than $1 billion in losses awaiting payment, insureds on the coast would be responsible for only 70% of about $500 million.  With the regulatory change, they are responsible for 70% of up to $1 billion.  So, basically, the non-TWIA insureds on the coast are objecting to helping their TWIA friends on the coast because they don’t think it’s their responsibility.

Conclusion

In a world of perfect political information, we might now see a battle between coastal residents, the non-TWIA policyholders battling the Commissioner’s proposal while the TWIA policyholders support it.  To date, however, such a lack of “coastal solidarity” has emerged.  And it is not clear what the alternative is. Where do political figures whipping up opposition to the Rathgeber plan think the money is going to come from if the Commissioner’s regulations are struck down, the goofy statute upheld as written, and TWIA finds itself following a significant storm with no money in the till? Surely they are still not marketing the elaborate fantasy that the current TWIA board can now assess insurers more money to pay for Hurricane Ike in 2008. If they really cared about the coast, they might agree to defer a fight about the perfect way to fund TWIA for a bit, and agree to a statutory fix that at least got rid of a fatal bug in the existing law which, if triggered, will devastate TWIA policyholders to be sure, but also those on the coast and off it who depend on a vibrant coastal economy.