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EDIT .szt R1AL Send In the Voters y ou know that a problem has spun pretty thoroughly out of control when you find yourself thinking, “Hey, maybe a Texas election can fix it!” That’s the conclusion that many folksDemocrats and Republicans alikehave reached when it comes to bringing down the state’s gravity-defying insurance rates. Texans pay the highest home-insurance premiums in the countryalmost twice the national average. Even after the much-ballyhooed “regulation” in 2003, prompted by rate hikes so extreme that even Gov. Rick Perry was forced to feign outrage, the Good Hands people of Texas have hauled in well in excess of $11 billion more than they’ve paid out in claims. That’s after Rita and Ike. It’s a profit margin that would make Sir Allen Stanford beam with pride. It’s the reason there’s a decent chance that Texas legislators will change the state’s insurance commissioner from a gubernatorial appointee to an elected official. And it’s the reason why they should. The Lege is being forced to take a long look at the state’s wacky insurance system because the Texas Department of Insurance is under Sunset review. Just as there’s no shortage of kinks in the system, there’s a plethora of solutions being float ed. Among the most essential: Do away with the file-and-use system instituted in 2003. Under file-and-useI kid you notinsurance companies don’t have to justify rate hikes or ask anybody for permission. They simply have to inform the insurance department politely, as the massively profitable Farmers Group Inc. did in December after it decided that a double-digit rise in home-insurance premiums was just what its customers needed as the economy imploded. Dear TDI, we are delighted to announce… The cure for file-and-use is “prior approval.” In this case, the name speaks for itself: Insurers would have to request a rate increase and make the case for it. This is a no-brainerwhich is, of course, no guarantee that it will pass muster in the Lege. If it does, it would be mighty helpful if the approval has to be granted by an elected commissioner. Eleven states elect their insurance commissioners. Consumers in those states pay an average of 43 percent less for home insurance and 12 percent less for health care coverage than Texans. As jay Angoff, a former consumer advocate who battled insurance giant Blue Cross and Blue Shield as insurance commissioner in Missouri, points out, that should come as no great surprise. “When an insurance commissioner is appointed, the commissioner answers to the governor. An elected commissioner answers to the public.” The notion of electing a commissioner strikes some people as going from reliably bad to potentially worse. After all, Texans do not exactly have a pristine record of voting for selfless public servants. Besides, “Who is going to contribute money for the candidates for insurance commissioner?” Texas Monthly blogger Paul Burka recently asked rhetorically. “Insurance companies.” But legislators are proposing limits on campaign contributions. And commissioner candidates can use their opponents’ industry funding against them. In Kansas, Kathleen Sebeliusnow the nominee for U.S. secretary of Health and Human Servicesdid just that when she refused to take insurers’ contributions and got herself elected commissioner in a heavily Republican state. Ultimately, the best reason to take a democratic leap of faith was expressed by one of Burka’s anonymous respondents: “Do you have any idea how bad we’re getting screwed under the current system? Answer this question: How could introducing some measure of accountability possibly make the situation any worse?” Bob Moser THE TEXAS OBSERVER I VOLUME 101, NO. 6 I A Journal of Free Voices Since 1954 FOUNDING EDITOR Ronnie Dugger CEO/PUBLISHER Carlton Carl EDITOR Bob Moser MANAGING EDITOR Brad Tyer ASSOCIATE EDITOR Dave Mann INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER Melissa del Bosque STAFF WRITER Forrest Wilder ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER Julia Austin CIRCULATION/OFFICE MANAGER Sharon Sparlin WEBMASTER Shane Pearson POETRY EDITOR Naomi Shihab Nye COPY EDITOR Rusty Todd EDITORIAL INTERN Jaime Kilpatrick NATION MAGAZINE LEGISLATIVE INTERN Reeve Hamilton LEGISLATIVE INTERN Susan Peterson CONTRIBUTING WRITERS Nate Blakeslee, Robert Bryce, Emily DePrang, Michael Erard, James K. Galbraith, Patricia Kilday Hart, Steven G. Kellman, Robert Leleux, James McWilliams, Char Miller, Kevin Sieff, Andrew Wheat CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHERS Jana Birchum, Alan Pogue, Steve Satterwhite CONTRIBUTING ARTISTS Maggy Brophy, Michael Krone, Dusan Kwiatkowski, Alex Eben Meyer, EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD David Anderson, Chandler Davidson, Dave Denison, Sissy Farenthold, Lawrence Goodwyn, Jim Hightower, Kaye Northcott, Susan Reid, Rusty Todd TEXAS DEMOCRACY FOUNDATION BOARD Lisa Blue, Melissa Jones, Susan Longley, Jim Marston, Mary Nell Mathis, Gilberto Ocanas, Jesse Oliver, Bernard Rapoport, Geoffrey Rips, Geronimo IN MEMORIAM Molly Ivins,1944-2007, Bob Eckhardt, 1913-2001, Cliff Olofson,1931-1995, Frankie Carter Randolph,1894-1972 tents copyrighted 2009, is published biweekly except during January and August when there is a 4 week break between [email protected] , . Periodicals Postage paid at Austin, TX and at additional mailing offices. POSTMASTER Send address changes to: The Texas Observer, 307 West 7th Street, Austin, Texas 78701. Subscriptions One year $32, two years $59, three years $84. Full-time students $20 per year; add $13 per year for foreign subs. Back issues $3 prepaid. Airmail, foreign, group, and bulk rates on request. Microfilm available from University Microfilms Intl., 300 N. Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48106. INDEXES The Texas Observer is indexed in Access: The Supplementary Index to Periodicals; Texas Index and, for the years 1954 through 1981, The Texas Observer Index. BOOKS & THE CULTURE is funded in part by the City of Austin through the Cultural Arts Division and by a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts. f:t4 Ite+1 Oh1}14.1 MARCH 20, 2009 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3