Why All the Money for Insurance Post? : * Voters Need an Independent Commissioner

When California voters last went to the polls, two years ago, the hottest election issue was insurance reform. It should have been an issue this year, too. But it's been obscured by big spending, especially in the Democratic Party's primary campaign for insurance commissioner.

In the past, the commissioner's job was filled by appointment. That changed when voters enacted Proposition 103, the only one of a handful of controversial insurance initiatives that passed in 1988. Proposition 103 was flawed--one of the reasons that state courts are still trying to clarify how it's supposed to work. But it did create a government structure that will better regulate the insurance industry in California-- if it is overseen by a commissioner who doesn't play favorites among the powerful interest groups that made insurance reform such a political mess.

One worry about the three best-funded candidates on the Democratic side is that they are campaigning with war chests that exceed $1 million each. In the past, state Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) has taken lots of money from the insurance industry, which would prefer that regulation be kept to a minimum. TV personality Bill Press is paying for his commercials with money from trial lawyers, who are fighting any insurance reforms that limit the fees attorneys can charge. Conway Collis, a member of the state Board of Equalization, who claims to be using his own personal wealth to finance the campaign, undercut any appeal he had to reasonable people by launching shrill attacks against insurance companies and current Commissioner Roxani Gillespie, who is making an effort to make Proposition 103 work while she has time left in office. All three candidates will try to inundate voters the next few days with TV ads and campaign mailers that oversimplify this complex issue.

So it would behoove voters to look beyond the attractive packaging of big-name candidates at other persons in the insurance commissioner's race who (a) have shown the courage not to take money from special interests and (b) to address insurance reform in its often boring complexity. Two candidates have done that more consistently than the major candidates. Democrat Walter Zelman, former state director for Common Cause, has very little money but is genuinely trying to address the issues--not just the high cost of auto insurance but the rising cost of health coverage, which is likely to be the insurance crisis of the '90s. Republican Thomas Skornia, a San Jose attorney, also has a long record of unpublicized work on behalf of insurance reform and has not linked himself with any particular faction.

Some analysts predict that the Democratic primary winner will be favored in the insurance commissioner's race in November because Republicans are closely identified with the insurance industry. We're not so sure. California voters are so impatient waiting for Proposition 103 to work that they will listen to any candidate who has specific ideas about insurance reform, no matter what party he belongs to. That's why we're hoping the candidates who emerge from the primary have the necessary background knowledge and independence for what is going to be one of the most important jobs in the state.

State Insurance Commissioner

Term: Four years

Salary: $96,000

Incumbent: Roxani Gillespie

Duties: Regulating 1, 850 firms licensed to sell insurance in California

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