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The Politics of Fire

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

Time to fight a fire is before the fire is raging out of control

Fires in Los Angeles have grown to the size of Washington, D.C

“We are very fortunate that we have the best and the most aggressive, best trained, most courageous firefighters in the world and that’s why we are able to push back very heavily.”

- California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

We are all proud of our firefighters. These men are all heroes. But why put them in harms way if we don’t have to? And we don’t- yet we do…why?

It’s a Turf War.

We are fighting more massive fires that ever because of a meltdown of responsibility between the State Fire Marshall, the only one responsible to protect human lives and property under the California Constitution, and resource agencies like the California Coastal Commission, the focus of SINS OF COMMISSION.

By failing to permit the clearance of ESHA in large unbroken swaths, the California Coastal Commission, and other agencies have jeopardized the very resources they are supposed to protect.

Deer Lost

People, wildlife, the environment of California - and the world are all victims of California political in-fighting. No one…certainly not the environment… and definitely not the people benefits.

The other point that invites contemplation is, Fire fighting is big business - probably one of our state’s biggest industries - and perhaps the biggest non tax and fine business in the Golden State.

Fire fighting makes  great photo ops, is big news, and gets lots of federal emergency money.

Trimming a bunch of ESHA does none of that .

Fire: Does ends justifies means?

Fire, is also a deadly political weapon. People don’t always get to rebuild their homes, and if a particular agency or commission desires to reduce population density….it can now use its permitting process to do so and deny people the right to rebuild… Santa Cruz, for instance.

It is high time the Secretary of the Interior steps to clean California’s house - since its obvious California can’t or won’t because of self-interest and completion for funds between agencies.

The state has spent $106.5 million of its $182 million emergency firefighting fund — just two months into the fiscal year

-Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer

California Wildfires - Who Really Gets Burnt? Follow The Money - Part 3

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

The October 2003 wildfires, which swept huge areas from Ventura County to the Mexican border, damaged or destroyed 3,631 buildings and were blamed for 24 deaths. Although some insurers won accolades for their response, the state insurance department received 869 complaints concerning insurers  ” roughly one for every four lost houses.  

Garamendi and a number of legislators held public hearings in Southern California and fashioned legislative solutions to recurring complaints. Insurers said the survivors’ stories were not symptoms of larger problems and most claims were resolved with minimal dispute. 

“A great many of these issues were brought up based on anecdotes,” said Bill Sirola, a spokesman for State Farm who is based in Sacramento. “Sometimes in the emotional aftermath of disasters, like the fires down in the Southland, there’s a great amount of publicity to what has seemingly gone wrong without seeing that, by and large, everything has gone well.”

State Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) introduced a measure in 2004 to prohibit insurers from canceling a policy or raising its cost because a home had suffered damage from a natural disaster or something beyond the owners’ responsibility or control.

Among the homeowners who testified was Lisza Pontes. Her Lakeside house was damaged but was spared destruction largely because she had spent more than $50,000 on fire-resistant coating and brush clearance.
“Mine was the only house on a street of 13 that wasn’t a complete loss,” she said. Nonetheless, after Pontes filed a claim, her insurer placed her in a more expensive, high-risk pool, and 17 other California companies rejected her before she found an out-of-state firm that would insure her.

Industry officials argued that it was reasonable to be skeptical of people with a history of filing claims, because they are more likely to file future claims. State regulators and consumer advocates countered that insurers practice “use it and lose it” to deter people from filing claims. Six members of the Assembly Insurance Committee voted for Escutia’s measure, SB 1474. Three opposed it. Nine votes were needed to pass the bill.

Under Sacramento rules, a measure needs the support of a majority of a committee’s members  ” not just a majority of those casting votes. The panel at that time had 17 members. Escutia’s bill failed because eight did not vote, though attendance records show that all were present in the Assembly that day. In 2005, a scarcity of participants in Vargas’ committee killed another bill concerning homeowners insurance.

Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) had proposed banning insurers from using potential customers’ credit histories in deciding whether to sell them policies. Ortiz said consumers’ credit was irrelevant to whether they were likely to file insurance claims. The industry countered that its studies showed that people who fell behind on their credit were more likely to fail to take care of their homes.

When the measure, SB 603, came before Vargas’ committee, which had been reorganized into a 10-member panel, three legislators cast votes for the bill, and two against it. The bill failed because five other legislators, including Vargas, did not vote, though all were in the Capitol that day.

As do many other interest groups, companies that write homeowners insurance have multiple ways of currying favor with legislators. Disclosure records show that since 2003, property insurers have picked up the tab 70 times on items as small as a $3.72 breakfast and as large as a $340 round of golf at Pebble Beach.

“That’s our premium dollars working against us,” said George Kehrer, executive director of Community Assisting Recovery, an advocacy group founded after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. In the last three years, Allstate, Farmers Insurance Group and two industry associations gave committee member Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) $1,300 in golf fees, meals and a room at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. Allstate also paid for a $170 meal at a Pebble Beach clubhouse for Calderon and his wife.

In May 2003, Farmers paid for Calderon and then-committee member George Nakano (D-Torrance) to attend a Laker game at $114 per ticket. State Farm gave $50 tickets to a 2004 Clipper game to staffers who work for Nakano and for two colleagues on the panel, Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) and Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood).

In March 2005, Farmers bought dinner for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), Vargas and the committee’s chief advisor at a cost of $166 a person. Insurers do not overlook the Republican minority on the panel, though records show that they have tended to pay for smaller events, like a $32 reception in 2003 for Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks), who owns an insurance business (Cox was elected to the Senate last year). Committee vice chairman John Benoit (R-Palm Desert) received a $67 dinner in 2004.

One of the most active lobbying groups is the Personal Insurance Federation of California, formed by Farmers and State Farm in 1989 after voters imposed stringent new rules on insurers through Proposition 103.

Between 2003 and 2005, the federation paid for 22 meals for committee members and their aides, as well as a $290 golf game for Vargas’ brother, Javier. A frequent participant at those meetings, legislators said, was the federation’s president, Dan Dunmoyer, now a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Vargas said the perks were irrelevant. “Most of the contact I have is not with them,” he said. “Most of the time I’m meeting with citizens, I’m meeting with friends of mine, and these are people who are not in the insurance business.”

Vargas noted that since he became chairman of the committee, he has sponsored three bills opposed by insurers and often votes against their interests.

Several of the wildfire survivors said Vargas particularly disappointed them. “When we found out that the chairman of the insurance committee was a San Diegan, we thought: ‘How great, who better than a local guy to know what had happened,’ ” said Ciaran Thornton, who lost his Harbison Canyon house in the fires. Thornton and a friend whose home had narrowly escaped incineration met with Vargas at his Chula Vista office in June 2004.

“We sat down, he listened to us. He said, ‘We’ll see what we can do.’ It was very hard convincing him. It was pretty much a roadblock,” Thornton said. “He never got back to us at all.”

Vargas said he gave wildfire victims extensive opportunities to make their cases, both privately and before his panel. But he said his empathy was outweighed by concerns that greater protections for wildfire areas, which tend to be affluent, would be paid for by more economically vulnerable people.

“You know who’s going to get hurt? It’s the elderly woman who has never had a claim, never done anything wrong, and her rates are going to go up by 10%, and that’s not right,” Vargas said.

Amy Bach, executive director of United Policy Holders, a San Francisco homeowner advocacy group, said the schmoozing between legislators and lobbyists cements personal relationships that carry over into the Capitol.

“If the guy’s gotten them a great tee time on a very coveted golf course, then they’re pals, and that makes it that much harder on a personal level to go against them,” she said.

See which California lawmakers, that represent you, make the biggest bucks from the insurance industry in Part 4.

Source: Times reporting
Los Angeles Times

See the article on Los Angeles Times website

Feeling burnt? Help us get the message out.

Donate now through the International Documentary Association, our fiscal sponsor.

Big Kudos to California Clean Money Campaign. Visit them at CCMC

California Wildfires - Who Really Gets Burnt? Follow The Money - Part 2

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

In the wake of the Southern California wildfires, lawmakers proposed six bills that, among other provisions, would have forced insurers to provide consumers with more information about policy choices, made it harder for companies to raise rates or cancel coverage and reduced the documentation that homeowners must provide to collect on a claim.

Those provisions, like others strongly opposed by the insurance industry, never made it to the Assembly floor.

The less ambitious bills that passed into law, with insurers’ consent, extended living expenses for those awaiting rebuilt homes, gave homeowners more options for mediation as an alternative to lawsuits and prevented insurers from canceling coverage while a home’s reconstruction was underway.

What happened to the homeowners bill of rights?

“What happened to the homeowners bill of rights is certainly an example of the power of this industry,” said state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, referring to a package of legislation that his office helped write in response to the wildfires.

The committee’s members and insurers alike said donations and gifts had no influence on legislative decisions. Insurers praised the panel for understanding that the proposed rules would have cost them so much that they would have raised premiums on all California homeowners.

“A lot of the bills were written because a natural disaster had happened, and people were writing bills that weren’t fully thought out,” said Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), chairman of the Assembly panel. Insurers, he said in an interview, “have to be held accountable, but at the same time you have to look at the whole picture: These guys are going to make money no matter what, so you have to keep the prices down.”

Rex Frazier, general counsel for the Personal Insurance Federation of California, commended the panel for finding compromises that produced “better bills.” “A number of the bills that were introduced were well-intended,” Frazier said, “but were not good policy.”  

The industry does not rely solely on the force of its arguments to sway lawmakers. Vargas has received more than $325,377 in campaign contributions from the industry, most of it since he took over the panel in 2003. Insurance donations were 17% of the money he raised for his two Assembly races. He is now making his third run for Congress, trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista) in the June Democratic primary.

In addition to the campaign donations, insurers with interests before the committee bought Vargas 13 meals, including one for $181 at Morton’s steakhouse in 2004. They paid for his flight to Boston to attend an industry conference and for rounds of golf.

Such events provided the industry with opportunities to present its perspective on legislation. Vargas said his legislative decisions derived not from the gifts and donations, all of which were legal, but from his moderate, pro-business views.

Wildfire survivors who came to Sacramento to press for changes said the committee’s position rarely deviated from that of the industry.

“When it came time to vote on one bill, lobbyists literally ran up to the dais and slipped them notes,” said Rebecca Huston, a screenwriter whose home in Cedar Glen was destroyed in the fires and one of a dozen wildfire victims who came at Garamendi’s behest to testify about their experiences.

“I watched insurance lobbyists mouth things to the Insurance Committee,” Reimus said. “You hear about people being in the pocket of an industry, and I really got to see it firsthand.”

Erik Strahm, a computer project manager at UC San Diego who also testified and met with lawmakers, said: “Always what we ended up hearing was, ‘Well, the insurance lobby is really strongly against this.’ At dinner one night, we actually ran into the insurance lobby giving a party to a lot of the lawmakers we had spoken to.”

See which California lawmakers, that represent you, make the biggest bucks from the insurance industry in Part 4.

Source: Times reporting
Los Angeles Times

See the article on Los Angeles Times website

Feeling burnt? Help us get the message out.

Donate now through the International Documentary Association, our fiscal sponsor.

Big Kudos to California Clean Money Campaign. Visit them at CCMC



 
 
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