Donations give appearance of bias.

Published 8:24 pm Friday, February 9, 2007

As the longest serving insurance commissioner in the nation, George Dale has done a commendable job of balancing the interests of Mississippi consumers with those of the insurance companies.

That juggling act is not always easy. If Dale tries to keep insurance rates unreasonably low, insurers just pull up stakes. If he gives in to their every rate request, he makes the cost of coverage beyond the ability of consumers to purchase.

Consumers don’t always understand the give-and-take the job requires. Over the years, Dale has been accused of being more concerned about keeping the insurance companies happy than keeping premiums down.

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That perception is fueled in large part by the fact that every four years, Dale is forced to put his hand out to the insurance industry for campaign contributions. Dale is seeking a ninth term this year, and his initial campaign report shows that at least 40 percent of the $133,000 he raised in 2006 came from insurers or others with ties to the insurance industry.

That pattern is nothing new. Average voters don’t donate a lot to insurance commissioner candidates. The down-ballot race doesn’t get much attention except from the insurance industry.

Accepting money from interests the insurance commissioner is supposed to regulate, however, compromises the impartiality of the position. It creates the appearance that insurers are buying a friendly face in the office.

There are a couple of ways that lawmakers could eliminate that conflict of interest.

For one, they could make it illegal for candidates for insurance commissioner to receive political donations from the insurance industry. A similar provision already exists in state law for another body of elected regulators, public service commissioners. Utility companies are banned from donating to PSC candidates.

A better remedy than campaign finance reform, though, would be to make the insurance commissioner’s job appointed. Such a change would not completely insulate the job from politics, but it would be a marked improvement.