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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / INSURANCE COMMISSIONER : Torres Vows Freeze of Insurance Rates; Opponent Ridicules Pledge


State Sen. Art Torres, the Democratic candidate for insurance commissioner, promised Sunday a one-year freeze on all insurance rates over which he would have jurisdiction if the voters elect him Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for Assemblyman Charles Quackenbush, the Republican candidate, called the Torres pledge an "arbitrary promise" by "a desperate candidate" and said not enough is known about the insurance price situation in the state to make such a pledge. Some companies, she suggested, might even be prevented from lowering prices by such a pledge.

At least $60 billion in insurance premiums--in such lines as automobile, homeowners, earthquake, commercial liability and workers' comp--are under the rate-setting authority of the insurance commissioner.

The Torres promise came against a background of heavy television advertising by Quackenbush, mostly financed by insurance industry contributions, and some tracking polls suggesting that the Republican has a lead in the final days of the race.

In a new television ad aired widely over the weekend, Quackenbush ignored his own contributions from the industry, which now total close to $2 million, and accused Torres of taking more than $200,000 from the industry, after saying he wouldn't take anything.

One distinction between the industry contributions to the two sides, beyond the divergent amounts, is that Quackenbush has received the lion's share of his industry contributions from companies, agents and brokers who are directly regulated by the insurance commissioner.

Most of the Torres contributions came from lawyers who work on industry issues, but are not directly regulated by the commissioner.

Two Torres backers, consumer advocate Ralph Nader and Harvey Rosenfield, said Sunday that if Quackenbush tried to raise rates, consumer interests would sue to prevent it. They estimated that under Quackenbush, average auto insurance rates would rise $96 in the first year, or a total of $1.35 billion.

Quackenbush spokeswoman Lynne Andersen said there are no facts available to reach such a conclusion.

Torres said he is basing his promise of a rate freeze on his belief that many insurers have been realizing excessive profits because they have never extended the rate benefits foreseen by Proposition 103, passed by the electorate in 1988.

"So I will freeze the rates," Torres said. And, he added, when he establishes a formula for rate-making based on insurer revenues, the prices may go lower still.

"This is going to be very difficult for Quackenbush to do, given the industry contributions he's received," Torres said. "They're not giving him all this money because he has a nice smile."

Responding for Quackenbush, Andersen said, "Torres has obviously come up with this last promise without doing any statistical analysis as to what will be good for the consumers and what isn't.

"Consumers have had enough false promises concerning Proposition 103," she added. "Chuck Quackenbush will get in there and get the job done without phony predictions."

Nader declared Sunday that if Quackenbush is elected, he foresees a revival of the adverse relationship between the commissioner's office and the leading consumer groups that existed before 1990, when Republican Roxani Gillespie was the last appointed commissioner, before the election of Democrat John Garamendi.

"Then the consumers would have to sue to enforce the laws," Nader said.

Nader acknowledged, however, that he is not certain what policies Quackenbush would follow as commissioner.

"This guy would have torn loyalties," Nader said. "He wouldn't want to be the most unpopular figure in the state. On the other hand, he would know who paid to put him in office."

Quackenbush declared last week that regardless of his contributions from the industry, he would be an independent commissioner, speaking up for prompt payment of consumer claims when he considered them legitimate and "cracking down hard on company abuses."

"I know all these companies aren't angels," he said.

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