Uncivil Wash. Lawmakers OK Insurance Fair Conduct Act

The debate was quick and anticlimatic in the Senate last week, as lawmakers approved a proposed Insurance Fair Conduct Act that touched off a major tiff on the House floor a week earlier.

In less than a minute, senators agreed to House changes to their original legislation and passed it 31-18, mostly along partylines, and sent it to Gov. Chris Gregoire for her expected signature.

The bill, a major collision between trial lawyers and the insurance industry, two of Olympia’s strongest lobbies, would prohibit the practice of delaying or denying a claim without proper cause. It would allow the policyholder to collect triple damages if the insurance company unreasonably denied a claim or violated unfair practice rules.

In the House, Republicans had lambasted trial lawyers as money-grubbers who will drive up insurance rates with their litigation. The debate blew up when Rep. Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, singled out Democratic House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler’s trial attorney husband, Keith, for particular scorn. Roach made hand motions and yelled “Whoooo oooo!” and mocked the Keith Kessler express for railroading the bill through. Keith Kessler did not lobby the bill and does not handle insurance cases.

Roach violated rules about personalizing debate and criticizing family members. The presiding officer, Speaker Pro Tem John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, a retired state trooper, had tried to keep debate toned down on both sides, and called Roach’s comments the worst breach of decorum in years.

The bill eventually passed the House on a mostly partyline 59-38 vote. Some House Democrats wanted to censure Roach, but Kessler told her colleagues to forget it and move on. Roach apologized and said later that he shouldn’t have personalized the debate.

On Saturday, there was no carry-over of the drama to the Senate, even though Roach’s mother, Pam, is an outspoken senior member. Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, a trial lawyer who sponsored the original bill, simply described the House’s amendments to narrow the measure somewhat, and recommended passage.

Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, said the House changes made the bill a bit better, but still recommended a no vote on final passage.

There was no further debate and no reference to the House blowup. The bill passed 31-18. Pam Roach initially voted yes and then switched to no. It was a straight partyline vote except for Republican Don Benton in favor and Democrats Mary Margaret Haugen and Tim Sheldon opposed.

Kessler said later that she was gratified by the vote and that the House Republicans’ tactics had effectively ended the GOP’s credibility on the subject. The bill is an important consumer protection and some of the 4,000 people who filed complaints each year will have greater recourse to the courts to get satisfaction from their insurance companies, she said.

“This is for all the people who get stiffed by their own insurance company,” she said.

Kessler said the painful debate underscored the need for civility.

“That signaled to the public that we have lines that can’t be crossed,” she said in an interview. “We try to keep this place civil. I know everybody thinks we’re always fighting.”

She said Roach visited her office to apologize, bringing a peace offering of an azalea plant. She said she took him at face value and that the incident is over. But she said she’ll be a little more guarded with the Republicans, ironic, she said, since she was one of the strongest advocates of majority Democrats reaching out to the minority.

On other issues, the Senate approved and sent to the governor bills:

-Allowing consumers to put a freeze on release of their credit reports without their permission.

-Creating an Office of Farmland Preservation within the State Conservation Commission. An amendment also prohibits the use of eminent domain to take agricultural land for the purpose of wetland mitigation.