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Legislature approves bills to aid victims of Tropical Storm Isabel

In the final days of the General Assembly session, legislators passed more measures designed to help Tropical Storm Isabel victims and to prevent a repeat of some of the problems they have experienced since the storm.

But many of the insurance reforms proposed by legislators in the wake of the September storm failed to pass.

"I would have liked to have seen a couple of the others pass, but I think we got the point across. We've got everybody's attention," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored many of the Isabel bills.

Yesterday, legislators passed a bill preventing mortgage companies from requiring homeowners to take out flood insurance policies that are worth more than their homes. Many Isabel victims discovered they had been paying for more coverage than they needed.

Over the weekend, legislators approved a bill preventing state government from increasing property tax assessments on natural disaster victims who rebuild their homes or other noncommercial structures, so long as the new building is the same size and quality as the old. The values would be frozen until the next regular reassessment.

"They won't have a higher tax simply because they rebuilt a property that was destroyed," said Del. Jon Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat and the bill's lead sponsor.

Responding to widespread complaints that flood insurance agents were unfamiliar with the details of the policies they were selling, the legislature voted last month to require that information about the program be included in agents' education requirements.

Congress is considering expanded education requirements for flood insurance agents, and the head of the National Flood Insurance Program, Anthony S. Lowe, has said he is working on the issue as well.

State legislators also passed a measure making it a criminal violation to act as a public adjuster without a license. Public adjusters advocate on behalf of property owners in insurance disputes. They are usually paid a percentage of the settlement.

Last month, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed a bill providing low-interest loans to help Isabel victims rebuild.

Several other state insurance reform measures failed to pass.

A bill that would have required the Maryland Insurance Administration to apply the standards of conduct for the handling of homeowners' and other policies to flood insurance claims died in a Senate committee.

Isabel victims have complained that they continue to pay insurance premiums on houses that were wiped out by the storm, but a bill that would have required homeowners' carriers to reduce premiums on damaged properties failed.

A bill that would have required homeowners' policies to cover mold damage didn't pass, nor did a bill that would have forced insurance companies to use the same adjuster for flood and homeowners' claims.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who testified on behalf of many of the bills, said that although some measures failed in Annapolis, there has been a "storm of reform" on the state and federal level in the past few months.

The National Flood Insurance Program has agreed to readjust all 24,000 claims filed nationwide in the wake of Isabel, and Lowe, the program's administrator, has pledged a "top to bottom" review.

"The voices of our victims were heard both in the halls of Annapolis and Capitol Hill," Smith said. "This was a fight worth fighting."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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