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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

In Legislation, Sometimes Less Really Is More

August 31, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — When a legislature refuses to pass a big bill, does that mean it has failed? Been corrupted? Is dopey?

Hardly.

At least hardly ever.

Usually, it's merely a judgment call, like it or not; a healthy function of democracy. Sure, philosophy and politics stumble over each other, but that's how the founders set up this oft-awkward system.

In fact, killing a bill--driving a stake clear through it--sometimes is the most productive action a legislature can take.

Just ask people in San Diego County! If only the Legislature had killed an electricity deregulation bill on the final rushed weekend of the 1996 session, their utility bills today would be roughly one-third what they are.

Late Monday night, the Assembly did the prudent thing when it enthusiastically buried another end-of-session bill that would have limited campaign contributions to the state insurance commissioner. This so-called reform was headed for veto anyway.

Seldom has the Assembly acted with such bipartisan fervor on major legislation: 26 Republicans opposed the measure, 19 Democrats either voted "no" or didn't vote at all. (Final count: 27 for, 34 against.)

Only 27 of 47 Democrats supported the bill, although it was pushed (halfheartedly) by their leaders. Supporters had a variety of reasons: Some truly favored the bill's concept. But many privately admit they feared being tagged as "failures"--maybe even insurance industry tools--for not passing some "reform." Any reform.

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This was the atmosphere:

It's the final week of the two-year legislative session. Lobbyists inside and outside the Capitol are walking around, eyes glazed, with cell phones to their ear. They clog the hallways and pack the narrow corridors behind the two legislative chambers, watching TV monitors and hoping to buttonhole a wandering lawmaker.

A small dumpster smells of leftover pizza, veggies and Chinese. People scurry about carrying plates covered with aluminum foil.

Rush-rush. Gotta act. Now.

Playing into this mood is the Chuck Quackenbush scandal--still a high for Democrats, a hangover for Republicans.

Quackenbush: the state insurance commissioner who abused his power by taking advantage of Northridge earthquake victims to enrich himself politically; who coerced insurers into donating millions to his own foundations in order to avoid paying billions in fines that would have gone into the state treasury. The Republican rising star who was pressured into resigning.

Now before the session ends, Democratic leaders feel, they must sustain the roll. Pass reform. Some reform. Voters will love it. The news media demand it.

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The real reform would be to rescue the Insurance Department from direct politics and revert to allowing the governor to appoint the commissioner. That's the way it was until 1988, when voters made it an elective office by narrowly approving a ballot initiative whose main attraction was a 20% rate cut in auto premiums.

The present situation is inoperable. The commissioner is a regulator--like a bank regulator--who oversees just one industry: insurance. To run successfully for statewide office in California requires millions. The only special interest prone to donate money to an insurance commissioner is the industry he regulates. And this makes him beholden.

If a governor named the commissioner--even if the governor collected insurance donations--there'd be some political insulation for the regulator. The commissioner wouldn't be an ambitious politician trying to stock a campaign war chest.

This was the view of Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), chairwoman of the Senate Insurance Committee. She wanted to push a bill making the office appointive. But other Democrats objected--particularly Senate leader John Burton of San Francisco. Privately, Democrats now see insurance commissioner as an office ripe for one of them in 2002.

Conversely, Republicans--encouraged by insurers--realize that the commissioner's office is beyond reach. They'd rather just turn it over to the governor. Any governor.

The Democrats' solution--amended into Speier's bill--was a convoluted scheme to limit an insurer's donation to $250 for a full year before and six months after any regulatory action. Never mind that some conniving commissioner could delay the regulatory action--or not act at all--to collect a hefty donation.

Fortunately, the Assembly killed this hurriedly hatched bill. Next year, the Legislature can reconsider asking voters to once again make the job appointive.

Barring that, the next best reform is to elect an ethical commissioner.

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