It’s time to appoint an insurance commissioner

Published 2:30 pm Saturday, April 22, 2023

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Now that Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon says he isn’t running for re-election, it’s a good time to make the commissioner’s job an appointive position. The state constitution adopted in 1974 makes that possible and a bill at the current legislative session can get it done.

Many hurricanes and other disasters have made insurance a costly and controversial problem and legislators are trying to enact new laws to make life easier for the state’s policyholders. Getting someone on the job with insurance expertise to enforce new laws seems like a good idea.

Louisiana has had some bad experiences with elected insurance commissioners. Three of them, the first one elected in 1971, were sentenced to prison for unrelated crimes. Robert Wooley was assistant insurance commissioner from 1999 to 2000 and then became acting commissioner when the third commissioner was convicted.

Wooley won a term of his own in 2003 but resigned three years later to take a job in the private sector. That is when current commissioner Jim Donelon, who was Wooley’s chief assistant, became commissioner.

Section 20 of Article IV of the state constitution says with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature the elected commissioners of agriculture, insurance and elections and the state superintendent of education could be made appointive offices. Any of those offices could also be merged or consolidated.

Legislators didn’t exercise that option for the first time until 1985 when they voted to have the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) select the state superintendent of education.

Passage of a Senate bill to do that didn’t come easily. After it passed the Senate, the House voted 71-31 for it, one vote more than the two-thirds (70) needed. However, it took out a provision that the Senate would have to confirm anyone that BESE appointed.

Then-Gov. Edwin W. Edwards supported appointing the education superintendent because of ongoing problems he was having with elected Superintendent Tom Clausen. Edwards managed to get legislators to restore confirmation by the Senate and the first appointment would come in 1988 at the end of Clausen’s term.

Wilmer Cody was the first person to get that appointive job in modern times when he accepted a two-year contract offered in 1988 by then-Gov. Buddy Roemer.

The late Dr. John Bertrand of Crowley was a member of BESE and explained during an address in Sulphur why appointing the superintendent was a good idea.

“We have never had the best superintendent we could have had because he has always been whoever could politick best or whoever had the most money to run for the job,” Bertrand said.

“When you spend $750,000 to run for state superintendent of education, you have to cut deals somewhere,” he said.

The same thing is true for many elective positions. Members of the Legislature made an effort in 2001 after the third insurance commissioner conviction to make that job appointive but it didn’t happen.

In 2001, the Legislature did vote to return the commissioner of elections position to the secretary of state’s office. The commissioner at the time had been indicted for money laundering.

The American Press in a 2003 editorial supported the education superintendent and election commissioner appointments. “Because both offices are primarily administrative, these commissioners should be appointed rather than elected …” the newspaper said.

Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, and chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee, is sponsoring Senate Bill 208 at the current session that provides for a gubernatorial appointment of the state insurance commissioner. It would be subject to Senate confirmation and would be a term of six years.

The appointed person would not serve more than two consecutive six-year terms. The governor would appoint someone from three nominees submitted by a nine-member nominating committee made up of state officials, legislators, bankers, home builders, insurance, and financial individuals.

The nominating committee would submit those nominees to the governor within 60 days after the governor takes office or within 60 days after a vacancy occurs in the office of commissioner of insurance.  Talbot’s bill has five requirements, including amount of experience, for those who are nominated. It also lists seven reasons why the appointed commissioner could be removed from office.

The Talbot legislation will be heard first by the Senate Insurance Committee before it could move to the full Senate, then the House committee and the full House.

Those who have to purchase property insurance in this state deserve an appointed state insurance commissioner. They need someone who is well-equipped by education and experience to protect their interests who doesn’t have to raise campaign money to get the job.


Jim Beam is a political columnist for the American Press.