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Gallagher for treasurer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 10, 2000


For reasons that now seem quaint, Florida's elected treasurer, a member of that odd collective constitutional entity known as the governor and Cabinet, is also the insurance commissioner and state fire marshal. As far as most voters are concerned, it's the added-on job that counts. Few have more than a passing interest in how the state manages its money, but everyone is at the mercy of the insurance industry. As that industry is accustomed to having its way with the Legislature, it is vital that the commissioner, at least, be someone who puts the public first and has the sense, skills, courage and independence to serve them capably.

Not all commissioners have measured up, but Tom Gallagher did. His six years in that office, which he left to run for governor in 1994, were progressive and effective. Gallagher excelled in managing the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, Florida's costliest disaster, when he forced companies to process claims faster and refused to let them cancel policies en masse.

He was tough on recalcitrant health insurance companies and health-maintenance organizations, he cracked down on Metropolitan Life Insurance for consumer abuse, and he fought to keep banks out of the insurance business. And he teamed across party lines with Education Commissioner Betty Castor, a Democrat, to establish the Healthy Kids Corporation, a school-based health insurance program that now covers more than 150,000 children statewide.

As the St. Petersburg Times commented during his governor's race, "Gallagher can rightfully claim to have restored a consumer ethic to an agency that long was controlled by the industry." That record makes him the clear choice, in our view, now that he's running to succeed the incumbent commissioner, Bill Nelson, who's running for the U.S. Senate.

The Democratic nominee for treasurer, Rep. John Cosgrove, is a Miami attorney with respectable qualifications. He served many years on the House Insurance Committee and chaired it for a time. He helped to pass the post-Andrew legislation, including some provisions he now finds faulty and proposes to change, and he has some proposals, including a state prescription drug plan for the uninsured, that deserve legislative consideration no matter who is elected. But though Cosgrove is suitably informed, Gallagher has a large competitive advantage in terms of his experience at running the insurance department, exercising regulatory judgment and conducting the business of the treasury and the Cabinet in education, environmental protection and law enforcement. A former legislator himself, Gallagher also was secretary of professional regulation before his election as treasurer in 1988.

If Gallagher is to be faulted, it's for his present capacity as education commissioner, where he's been insufficiently critical of the deficient "A+

" school-rating and voucher plan that his fellow Republican, Gov. Jeb Bush, muscled through the Legislature. But insurance isn't a priority with Bush and he isn't likely to challenge Gallagher's superior mastery of that issue.

It's important to note in that regard that this is the last time Floridians will elect a treasurer and insurance commissioner. That office, along with the post of comptroller and banking commissioner, will be folded into the new elective position of chief financial officer. Will that office also regulate insurance and banking? Will those jobs go to some appointed functionary under the governor and Cabinet? Or will the governor take charge of financial regulation? These questions, along with such specific issues as reform of windstorm insurance and the cost and availability of health insurance, will severely test the new commissioner's political skills.

Cosgrove came early to the campaign but much later to the real issues, wasting much time and demeaning himself in personal attacks on Gallagher. That backfired when questions were raised about possibly illegal contributions to his own campaign. The defining issue is Gallagher's superior experience. The Times recommends his election on Nov. 7.

Opportunity to reply

The Times offers candidates not recommended by its editorial board an opportunity to reply. Candidates in the races discussed today should send in their replies no later than 5 p.m. Thursday to: Philip Gailey, editor of editorials, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. (E-mail: letters@sptimes.com; Fax: 893-8675). Replies are limited to 250 words.

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