The bill that emerged from a HouseSenate conference committee in the final days of the session does give new regulatory powers to the State Board of Insurance, notably to allow regulators to issue immediate cease-and-desist orders against fraudulent companies rather than waiting for the results of a hearings process. Hildreth of the Consumers Union dismissed the final bill as “insurance reform lite.” At the end of the session he told reporters that his group intends to work in the interim on insurance issues. “We will be back, [and] we will be better prepared,” Hildreth said. , And they will be back probably sooner than later. The insurance lobbyists might be able to rest easy for now, but consumer lobbyists may have their hands full with another battle in the upcoming special session. Gov . Clements is expected to open the session’s agenda to products liability legislation. A bill that consumer advocates said would have made it harder to sue manufacturers of unsafe products passed the House but stalled in the Senate. But the business interests understand that under a Republican administration the rule is “try and try again.” This, of course, set the insurance lobbyists scrambling. And their influence was not to be underestimated. The American Insurance Association was represented by former Senators A.R. “Babe” Schwartz and Grant Jones. Powerful lobbyists such as former House member Bill Messer, and Dick Brown and Forrest Roan were omnipresent. In fact, by mid-session, more than 80 insurance companies or insurance associations had lobbyists registered with the Secretary of State’s office. The lobbyists operated at times directly out of the office of Rep. John Gavin, the Wichita Falls Democrat who was chairman of the House insurance committee. By the time Gavin’s House committee got through working Montford’s bill over it had been stripped of many of the Senate’s reform provisions, including Lyon’s amendments. This was the normal method of business for the insurance committee, but in the course of its servitude to the insurance lobbyists the committee astounded observers with one especially notable example of government at its worst. This occurred at a committee hearing on May 10. As chairman Gavin presented the Senate bill, he decided to ignore traditional custom that gives the bill’s proponents a chance to testify first and instead allowed the industry lobbyists \(who at that point were hearing got started at the dinner hour and continued well into the evening, as a good number of public interest lobbyists and ordinary citizens waited their turn to testify. When after about five hours their time finally came, Gavin and presiding chair M. A. Taylor decided that each proponent of the bill would be limited to two minutes. This irked Rep. Lloyd Criss, the labor Democrat from La Marque, who objected immediately and caused Gavin and Taylor to back down. “He’s not heartless, really,” Criss said later of Gavin. “He’s just extremely close to the insurance industry. They didn’t realize they were discriminating against people it had to be pointed out to them.” Gavin himself admitted later that “I lost my cool on that,” and said he had apologized. But he made no apologies for the insurance bill, which consumer lobbyists referred to as a “thin, empty shell” of the reform package that passed the Senate. The consumer groups hoped to restore the teeth to the bill on the House floor, but here they were met by a surprise enemy: House Speaker Gib Lewis. When the bill came up on May 24, Gib was ready to gavel approval for the insurance lobbyists’ clever parliamentary tactic: any amendments that didn’t have to do strictly with insurance industry solvency would be ruled not germane to the bill. Thus, the broad reforms that were a part of the bill as it emerged from the Senate were suddenly not considered to be germane in the House. This deprived pro-consumer Representatives, who on this issue were led by Rep. Eddie Cavazos, of a chance to repeal the insurance anti-trust exemption. An amendment drafted by Steve Wolens was the closest they could come to an anti-trust vote; it had to do with companies’ ability to share certain trade information. It came down to a razor-close vote, appearing at first to fail by two votes. In a verification recount, the vote ended in a tie and George Pierce, a San Antonio Republican who was in the Speaker’s chair, broke it in favor of the insurance lobby. The bill passed in weakened form by a 980 vote, with 48 House members voting “present” in protest. Shortly afterward, consumer lobbyists held a Capitol press conference, the frustration and anger showing clearly in their faces. John Hildreth of Consumers’ Union called the Speaker’s parliamentary ruling “unfortunate and unconscionable.” Rebecca Lightsey of Texas Consumer Association said the Speaker had stifled debate by reaching a “tortured reading of the rules.” Hildreth surmised that the House might have been favorable toward some of their amendments: “That’s why the insurance industry did not want votes on these issues they thought they were going to lose,” he said. The next day the consumer reps were back for another press conference, which began with Lightsey explaining that “yesterday . . . we did not want to speak solely out of anger.” Having said that, they angrily blasted away once again at Gib Lewis. “Yesterday, when it appeared that public opinion over outrageous rates and the recent insurance scandal might overcome the dozens of lobbyists and their thousands of influence-buying dollars, the Speaker changed the rules,” Hildreth charged. “Let there be no mistake about it, the legislator who is most responsible for sticking the people of Texas in the next few years with unfair large insurance bills is Gib Lewis.” Tom Smith of Public Citizen admitted that “we know we are taking a risk” by blaming the Speaker. “We know we will not be part of the ‘team,’ ” he said. But he said the consumer groups intend to spend the next year and a half publicizing the “anticonsumer, anti-middle-class and anti-people actions” of the Texas House. Attorney General Mattox had been watching the action from the House floor. Afterward, he too, deplored the course of the debate. “The House today had an opportunity to pass legislation that would have significantly reduced insurance rates in Texas; I have no doubt about it.” If the anti-trust exemption repeal would have passed, he said, “it would have totally restructured insurance rate regulation in Texas.” Mattox noted with particular distaste that “today, in the gallery, a representative of Lloyd’s of London was there to try to protect their big special interests in this particular piece of legislation.” PESTICIDE WARS AN OUTSIDE observer who was plopped down in the legislature in mid-session might well have asked what improprieties Commissioner of Agriculture Jim Hightower had committed to cause his agency to be the center of such a political storm. The Texas Department of Agriculture went through the entire session as an embattled agency, and for most of that time the governor was speaking openly of trying to remove Hightower from power. The Great TDA War took the form of a scandal without the scandal. Hightower was treated by the legislature as if he were fit to be impeached; and yet, there was no bill of particulars. What had Hightower done? He had offended some people. The Farm Bureau and the Cattleraisers Association were offended that he didn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with them in the promotion of hormone-injected beef. Agribusiness concerns and pesticide applicators were offended that he had put regulations in place that seemed to imply that there was something wrong with chemicals sprayed on crops. And Bill Clements seemed to be offended by the very thought of Hightower. Perhaps Clements had not forgotten that several years ago Hightower had referred to him as “bi-ignorant.” It seemed to gall the governor that this “ex-magazine publisher,” as he put it with detectable disdain, was in a position of power. But as much as Hightower’s enemies railed about the beef hormone issue early in the session and the pesticide issue later on this political war was never really THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21
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The Texas Rangers are tasked with investigating corruption and crimes by public officials. Those officials are rarely held accountable.