Editorial: A controller and a commissioner

In less than two weeks California voters will choose the next state controller and insurance commissioner. Both offices can have enormous impact on citizens’ financial health, which is why the candidates must be extraordinarily disciplined and honest.

Strictly partisan considerations shouldn’t factor into the qualifications for these positions. The Examiner insists on a nonpartisan evaluation of candidates, which explains — no surprise — how it happens that we picked one Republican and one Democrat to endorse.

The state controller occupies the more long-standing, and arguably more important, office. The controller acts as the state’s chief fiscal officer, essentially a bookkeeper who manages the state’s payroll and audits the state’s operations. The state’s actual funds are managed and invested by the state treasurer.

Democrat John Chiang possesses the kind of résumé that recommends him for this role. Starting his career as a tax law specialist for the Internal Revenue Service, he has since performed as chief of staff for then-state Controller Gray Davis and served as a member of the Board of Equalization as well as the state Franchise Tax Board.

His promise to “slam shut corporate tax loopholes and insist that the oil and insurance companies pay their fair share,” to be sure, does amount to overheated populist rhetoric, which, if implemented, would cost motorists and policy-holders. But only the Legislature and governor can really do that.

Still, he knows his way around this bureaucracy and has achieved a measure of competence his opponent, longtime Republican legislator Tony Strickland, has not. And we suspect he’s learned to be more business-friendly from his colleague, outgoing Controller Steve Westly.

In 1988 state voters elevated the state insurance commissioner’s job to an elected position when the industry was widely thought to be corrupt. The office licenses, regulates and monitors insurance companies and their agents; it also protects them by policing insurance fraud.

The office itself, predictably enough, has not kept free of scandal. One former commissioner, Chuck Quackenbush, was forced out of office when his cozy relationship with the industry was revealed. And John Garamendi, now running for lieutenant governor, has been widely criticized for failing policyholders in his handling of an insolvent company, Executive Life.

So it’s especially important that the hound’s-tooth criterion apply. We think that Steve Poizner, a Stanford-schooled entrepreneur, meets that qualification and more. Poizner wants to make a priority of targeting insurance fraud, an all-too-common practice costing California policy-holders hundreds of millions of dollars.

He’s also committed to seeing that insurance rates are pegged to driving records, not to the neighborhoods in which a driver lives. His opponent, former lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante, certainlyshares that sensitivity, but he brings nothing to the job but a political résumé.

Poizner vows to open the windows and bring fresh air to the office. He deserves to be elected.

Part of the San Francisco Examiner's 2006 Election Coverage.

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