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State insurance regulator's job is on the line

State insurance regulator's job is on the line
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POSTED: Friday, March 22, 2013 - 10:13pm

UPDATED: Friday, March 22, 2013 - 10:22pm

When U.S. senators want to battle over a presidential appointment, they often do it right out loud.

Texas, by comparison, is genteel. Or at least it’s quieter.

Eleanor Kitzman, if reappointed insurance commissioner by Gov. Rick Perry, has to win Senate confirmation in the next 10 weeks or she will be out of a job.

She would not be the only appointee hoping for confirmation; that’s a pretty long list. But she would be a prominent one, and she is having a hard time finding angels who will see her through the political obstacle course.

Her current term ended last month, and she has not been reappointed. The first indication of her success or lack of it will come from Perry. If he wants to keep her, he will appoint her to a new two-year term, and the Senate will have until Memorial Day, the end of its current session, to consent. The Senate can approve, disapprove or fail to act. Either of the last two options would send Kitzman packing.

Kitzman was initially appointed when the Legislature was not in session; the Senate has never approved or disapproved of the selection. For now, she is a holdover waiting for the governor to tap her or a replacement for the job.

She came back to Texas, where she grew up and went to college, from South Carolina, where she was insurance director and — after losing a race for lieutenant governor — a member of that state’s budget and control board. She has experience in the insurance industry, which makes her suspect to adversaries but which is required by Texas law. And she has made headlines, more or less in proportion to the number of toes she has stepped on. Critics point to her attendance at a political event for her former patron, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, held by an insurance company in Irving. She said in public that the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association should hire a consultant to consider rate hikes based on storm experiences in various parts of the state, saying the current rates were “inadequate for the risk” and a reason that private companies blanch at writing those policies.

One of the loudest critics, Alex Winslow of the consumer advocacy group Texas Watch, said that home insurance rates had “skyrocketed” during Kitzman’s term and that she had rolled back rules created to inform doctors and patients about high out-of-network expenses before those charges were incurred. Winslow can and does go on about what he sees as her shortcomings, but the important thing is that few in the Capitol or the insurance industry — which was initially full of praise for her — are leaping to her defense.

The back and forth on Kitzman’s qualifications is a little stale, newswise. Republicans and Democrats and consumer and industry types have been talking about her since Perry brought her back to the state. What’s new is that nobody on her side has done the political and legislative spadework — the sales job — to get her the support she needs to stay in the job.

In the little civics bubble around the state Capitol, people have been talking for weeks about the current session’s slow, low-key start. The freshman class is huge. Lawmakers are mindful of how much their voters hate Congress right now and how much those lawmakers want to stay out of that boat. It has been a perfect time to lay the foundation for things that will happen — and happen quickly — during the remainder of the session. That biennial 20-week legislative extravaganza has just passed its halfway point. If Perry’s aides can assemble the votes to approve an insurance commissioner, things can move quickly from appointment to Senate Nominations Committee to the full Senate. If he would rather not haggle with senators, the governor could wait until after the session has ended and appoint an insurance commissioner then. That person would serve until the next regular legislative session in 2015. One person would be ineligible: Kitzman. Her only shot is to win reappointment and confirmation while lawmakers are in town.

To do that, she will need a majority of the 31 senators on her side. She is not there yet.

 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/03/22/insurance-regulator-10-weeks-go/.

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