Kromko's Crash Course in Party Loyalty

John Kromko, a Democrat always willing to take up a populist cause, is being snookered by, of all people, his own party.

Three months ago Democratic bigwigs were pushing their maverick colleague from Tucson to start an initiative drive to roll back auto-insurance premiums. The state representative wasn't even a big fan of the proposal, having his own ideas of how to get some relief for Arizona motorists, who are paying some of the highest rates in the country.

Kromko, considered a whiz at grassroots petition drives, finally agreed after being assured the backing of the party and its elected officials. He is drafting the final version of the initiative and expects to hit the streets within the next week or two, gathering signatures to get the measure on the November 1990 ballot.

But the lawmaker suddenly finds party officials cool--if not downright icy--to his initiative. They now are claiming that the insurance problem can be solved through a legislative compromise. And they haven't even bothered to clue in Kromko--the man who has been doing all the work--as to what they have in mind.

All that has left Kromko flustered. "I don't know what in the world is going on here," he moans.

What is going on is that Democratic party leaders are more concerned with their image than with insurance reform.

"We are legislators," explains House Minority Leader Art Hamilton about the sudden shift in the party's stance. "If we are seen fourteen months out [from the 1990 election] simply as suggesting we are going to abandon the legislative process, we simply look bad. And the governor wanted to make sure we tried to work out a legislative solution."

Kromko doesn't understand why Hamilton suddenly believes the Republican-controlled legislature will be willing to do next session what it refused to do in the last one. "As far as I'm concerned the legislature had its chance," Kromko says. Some Republicans were willing to accept the Democrats' demand that insurance companies get state approval for rate hikes. But they balked at setting up an independent consumer advocate. And there was no way GOP lawmakers were going to tell insurance companies they had to roll back prices, even in the face of evidence from the Department of Insurance that many companies had imposed double-digit price hikes since January 1.

What Kromko recognizes is that the public unrest over skyrocketing insurance rates can be a political win-win situation for the Democrats.

The Republican proposals don't demand lower rates. Instead they allow insurance companies to provide less coverage or pay out less for injuries, with the assumption that the companies will pass on any savings to customers. The Democrats will have a field day with these offerings--many of which are drafted by the insurance industry itself--because there is no guarantee to motorists of price savings.

So the Democrats can hold fast to their demands. If the Republicans come around, the Democrats can claim victory. And if they don't, the Democrats can urge voters to go to the polls next year and vote for a far-reaching initiative as well as throw out the GOP lawmakers who wouldn't rein in the insurance industry.

About the only way the Democrats can blow it is if they suddenly decide to compromise and settle for less rate relief than they want or give more goodies to the insurance industry. That possibility angers some rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers.

"I don't see any reason to compromise," says Phoenix Democrat Sandra Kennedy, one of the architects of last session's rate-rollback plan. She says the entire three-part plan--the rollback, the prior review of rate hikes and an independent consumer advocate--is justified.

Republican lawmakers, still unable to hear the public outcry, are unwittingly helping the Democrats. Glendale Republican Karen Mills, who chairs the House Banking and Insurance Committee, is busy dusting off her own pet program: an optional no-fault auto insurance system. She says that's the only thing that will bring rates down. Insurance lobbyists like Mills' plan--and that makes the Democrats gleeful.

Many Democrats are upset with their own party for deserting Kromko. But they don't want to go head-to-head publicly with the powerful Hamilton.

"The feeling was John should start screaming about the initiative," recalls one Democratic lawmaker who was privy to the closed-door discussions among the party leadership while the legislature was still in session. "He kept telling us he didn't want to do it, that he had a different bill."

A very different bill. Kromko never was a big fan of increased state regulation as a method of driving down rates. Instead he wanted the state to provide basic insurance for motorists, with the premiums collected as part of the vehicle registration fee. He reasoned the state could keep rates lower than profit-seeking private companies. Kromko's legislative proposal would have all but eliminated the problem of uninsured motorists. State officials estimate that a third of the cars on Arizona roads may be uninsured.

But Kromko bowed to pressure from his colleagues to drop his own proposal and support their three-point legislative package. And when Republicans balked, the Democrats trotted out the threat of a Kromko-led initiative to try to scare them into a last-minute compromise. Glenn Davis, the party's executive director, came out to the capitol to announce publicly that the Democrats would support Kromko's initiative unless lawmakers enacted "meaningful" insurance reform. And Kromko went along. "He got it going," one lawmaker says. "And now they're leaving John out in the cold."

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