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June 25, 2007

$1 million insurance fight goes on the air

Posted by David Postman at 4:42 PM

The campaign to repeal a new state insurance law is fast becoming an expensive effort. Insurance interests have now raised more than $1.1 million, according to the latest filings at the Public Disclosure Commission. The industry-funded Consumers Against Higher Insurance Rates has launched a TV campaign, encouraging people to sign petitions for Referendum 67.

Records from state TV stations collected by the opposition campaign show the repeal effort has bought $692,000 worth of air time through July 20. (Campaign spokeswoman Dana Childers confirmed that was generally the size of the TV buy.) July 21 is the deadline for submitting signatures to the Secretary of State's office.

A 30-second ad began airing last week. You can see it on the campaign's Web site. It plays on the image of greedy trial lawyers with a pretend TV commercial from a firm called "Sooem Settle & Kashin." The ad says trial lawyers pushed through legislation "promoting frivolous lawsuits and jacking up your insurance rates."

The campaign uses the slogan, "Reject R-67," because a negative vote in November would repeal the law. But it's the insurance group that is trying to put R-67 on the ballot. The law it seeks to repeal allows courts to impose triple damages if an insurance company is found to have unreasonably denied coverage or payment.

Campaign spokeswoman Dana Childers told me, "The purpose of the media buy now is to simply inform voters that there is a petition drive out there" for a law that "will increase their insurance rates and they have a chance to reject that law if they want."

Some local insurance companies have said that they hope negotiations with Gov. Christine Gregoire produce changes to the law that would to satisfy the industry and the referendum will not have to go forward. Childers said it would take a "surprising agreement" with "substantive change" to head off the referendum.

"I think at this time it's wise for everybody to have all options on the table. We'll see what comes out of the governor and let's see how the petition drive goes. Then come the third week of July, we'll see whether the interested parties want to go that direction."

The latest donations to the industry group include large checks from State Farm and Allstate. But the total doesn't include another $230,000 that local firm Safeco has pledged to the campaign.

The repeal campaign is funded solely by insurance interests, mostly out of state companies.

The Washington Trial Lawyers have donated $100,000 to the opposition campaign. It is unlikely they will have any paid media to combat the petition drive. The campaign assumes the measure will qualify for the November ballot and is preparing for a fall campaign, said spokeswoman Sue Evans. She told me:

I will be working on educating the press while other members of the campaign will be working to educate progressive allies. We believe they have the money to buy the signatures they need to get it on the ballot. ... We will never match the insurance industry dollar for dollar in this campaign, but the facts and the truth are on our side.

Evans and the trial lawyers dispute that insurance rates would increase under the new law. She said:

Referendum 67 simply requires insurance companies to treat people fairly. If you paid your premium, and have a valid insurance claim, the insurance company must honor its commitment to the policy holder. Without this law, insurance companies suffer no penalties under the law for failing to make good on their promise. They actually earn interest on the money they wrongfully withhold from policyholders.

SIDEBAR: Also today, PEMCO issued a clarification on its stance on Ref. 67. Last week I quoted company spokesman Jon Osterberg saying the referendum was flawed and would be bad for consumers. But he said today that came from a misunderstanding between him and others in the company.

PEMCO is neutral on Ref. 67. It is the legislation in question, which was Senate Bill 5726, which PEMCO believes will be bad for consumers. The company will not donate to the referendum campaign, though, and believes negotiations with the governor and lawmakers are a better way to fix the law than a referendum campaign. Osterberg wrote me today:

Efforts to modify the new law on insurance claims would be seriously hampered by a complicated referendum campaign. The law passed in 2007 would generate massive litigation, leading to higher costs for consumers because of increased business-operations costs. We believe equitable revisions to the law can best be achieved through thoughtful recommendations from the Governor's working group.

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Democrats file complaint against Dino Rossi

Posted by David Postman at 1:34 PM

The state Democratic Party filed a complaint today with the Public Disclosure Commission claiming Dino Rossi's non-profit is "functionally indistinguishable to that of a gubernatorial candidate." The Democrats say Rossi's fundraising and spending should be subject to the same rules as for political donations.

The complaint says:

Mr. Rossi's role is, specifically, to "speak out and take positions on issues affecting state government. These will be issues that are or could be affected by the state legislature, Washington State Governor and/or regulators. . . " See Attachment 1(501(a) Application). The president and executive director are also responsible for meeting regularly with community leaders to discuss state policies. Id. Similarly, the core activities of Forward Washington are akin to those of a campaign for public office. Core activities include, specifically, "speeches, statements to the media, forums, seminars and panel discussions, research into state government issues, . . . communications to state residents, [and] occasional paid media advertising". Id.

You can read the whole complaint here. Democrats say Rossi's "Forward Washington Foundation," a tax-exempt organization, is essentially a disclosure dodge created only after Rossi had formed, and then put on hold, a 2008 campaign committee.

Rossi lost to Gov. Christine Gregoire after a record close election in 2004, several lawsuits, recounts and a two-week Superior Court trial. Rossi says he won't make a decision about another run until the end of this year. But as Sean Cockerham reported in the New Tribune in May, he certainly seems like a candidate.

"I tell you what, if we did do this again, theoretically, we're going to need you and everyone you know," Rossi told a conference of moderate Republican activists. "You and everyone that you know."

Rossi said his family would make a decision before the end of the year whether he'll run for governor again in 2008. He's keeping himself in the public eye, going around the state giving speeches and signing copies of his book — generally acting like a candidate.

Everyone at this weekend's Cascade Conference of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington seemed to think he's running.

Recently Rossi has been on a listening tour asking people for suggestions on how to improve state government. To skeptical reporters at least, that has a campaign-like ring to it. This is from the Columbian after a Vancouver stop:

Republican Dino Rossi brought his "Idea Bank" tour to Vancouver Thursday evening in an event that he insisted was not a warm-up for a rematch against Gov. Chris Gregoire next year. Rossi, the former state senator who lost to Gregoire in 2004 by just 133 votes, is holding idea-gathering forums around the state in June and July — everywhere, he says, except Seattle.

...

Then Alice McClure said what was on everyone's minds: "A lot of us want you to run again."
To loud applause, Rossi smiled and said, "We'll talk about that later in the year."

...

Asked after Thursday's session why he would put forth so much effort to gauge public opinion if he weren't planning to run, Rossi chose to talk about Gregoire instead.

"All I have to do is say what I'm going to do and the governor does it," he said with a smirk. For example, he recently scheduled talks to business groups in Sammamish and Kitsap County. The governor showed up in both places the following week, he said.

I'll find out what Rossi has to say about the complaint. It is absolutely true that many complaints get filed with the PDC for no reason other than to make political hay and grab a headline. But the commission certainly finds merit in some complaints filed against a candidate by partisan opponents.

MORE: I just talked to Rossi. He said he assumed "Christine" would file a complaint against Forward Washington. He's convinced the governor is behind it. But, he says there's noting wrong with Forward Washington or his work with the foundation.

The Democrats claim Rossi s a declared candidate for governor in 2008. They base that on the fact that Rossi at one time opened a 2008 campaign account, then closed it before creating Forward Washington. Rossi says the '08 campaign committee was formed after advice from the PDC as a way to handle contributions to his legal defense fund for the '04 election contest. He says when the committee was shut down it was done in consultation with PDC staff.

"I never ever said I was running in '08. Those words have never crossed my lips, publicly or privately. ... I just tell people I'll make a decision by the end of the year and their complaint says I'm a declared candidate? Boy, they better check in with my wife."

Rossi said the Idea Bank is not designed to help in a campaign if he decides to run again. He said all the ideas vetted by the group will be posted on its Web site and be available for even Gregoire to use if she wants.

MORE: A spokesman for Gregoire says the governor was not involved with the Democrats' complaint. "We had absolutely nothing to do with the state party's efforts and there was no coordination at all," said Press Secretary Lars Erickson. He said he didn't know anything about it until he read it in the Slog today.

Last week at the Slog, Josh Feit wrote after reading a New York Times story about a questionable non-profit operated by presidential candidate John Edwards: "John Edwards Makes Me Think of Dino Rossi for Some Reason."

Today Feit writes that "Washington State Democrats apparently agreed with me." And of critics who knocked him for highlighting a N.Y. Times story some said was off-base, Feit wrote:

What do you Democratic Party partisan zombies say now? Are the Democrats being unfair to Rossi?

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DNC chair Dean coming to raise money

Posted by David Postman at 10:39 AM

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean will be in Seattle tomorrow. Dean will headline a fundraiser at the Westin Seattle.

Pleased with last year's election results?

Join Howard Dean as he talks about how we're going to Strengthen our Majority in Congress and Take Back the White House next November!

It'll cost $50 for a "Join the Party" reception and $500 to be considered a "Trailblazer" and get in to a more elite event.

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