Power Steering

Last session legislators gambled on a new program that lobbyists claimed would make Colorado's roads safer. Don't bet on it.

When Kasteler came to Colorado to personally lobby lawmakers, he cited figures ranging from 23 percent to 30 percent. Reports that his claims were hyper-inflated never made it to most Colorado legislators. (Even though an audit in Utah last month failed to bear out Kasteler's claims, he stands by his numbers.)

Lacy and Anderson followed Kasteler's lead. They conducted a press conference last January to announce that the percentage in Colorado was 34 percent. Lacy acknowledges that the higher number was used because it would be better for selling the bill. "When I saw those [NAII] numbers," she says, "I was surprised and thought that we should get them out there." Lacy now says she thinks the rate is "somewhere between 10 and 20 percent."

Anderson contended at that fateful press conference that her bill was a "new, effective tool to drive uninsured motorists off the road."

But the NAII's Kummer argues that the Insure-Rite plan is neither new nor effective. "This is not a silver bullet," he says. While Utah is the only state to farm out the work, Kummer notes, a few states have tried to do it themselves and then backed away. Kummer points to Illinois, where the state planned to collect $1.2 million in fines against uninsured motorists after starting a database-style program in 1994 but wound up bringing in only $96,000.

In New Jersey, says Kummer, the state started using the database method several years ago to try to lower insurance premiums. The state still has the highest insurance premiums in the nation, he says.

These stories never came up during debate in the Colorado Legislature. "There was almost no discussion in the House," says Representative Dan Grossman, a Democrat from Denver who was against the bill.

"It was presented as something almost Pollyanna-ish in Utah," adds Representative Penn Pfiffner, a Lakewood Republican who also voted against the bill. Pfiffner says he was reminded of the Envirotest situation, in which a company lobbied hard for a new program and then captured the contract to run it.

"My fear is that this computer solution was really Big-Brotherish," Pfiffner says. "I think that all it will do is transfer the problem and the costs to the law-abiding citizen."

Grossman says he thinks there are much simpler and cheaper solutions, including making it mandatory to show proof of insurance when registering a vehicle rather than just signing a statement that you have insurance. According to the state, Colorado has never prosecuted anyone for lying on that form.

In Colorado, 45,000 people are convicted each year for driving without insurance, according to the DMV's Duncan, but almost all of those come in conjunction with other convictions. That is, a person will get a ticket for speeding, and when police discover the driver has no insurance, that charge is tacked on.

Grossman and Pfiffner were voices crying in the wilderness: Anderson pushed the bill through the House with only four dissenters.

In the Senate, the bill at least hit a speed bump. To get it passed, Anderson and Lacy had to agree to an amendment from Morrison senator Bill Schroeder, a fellow Republican known for fighting "single-source" legislation--bills that benefit only one company. He persuaded the Senate to add a provision that would kill the entire process if there weren't at least two bids on the project. "I just don't want us single-sourcing anything," Schroeder says.

Anderson insists that the bill is neutral toward Insure-Rite and that other companies will bid on the job. "We have a bid process, and it does work," she says. But Anderson, the law's chief sponsor, can't name any other companies that might bid on the work.

She also insists that going with a private company is preferable to having the state do the work. "If you try to expand the state computers," she says, "you just won't get it done."

Atkinson, Insure-Rite's errand boy, has been flown around the country by the company to promote the program. And he says he cautions legislators to write their bills with a bidding process built in to take the wind out of the sails of critics like Schroeder.

As for Schroeder, he wound up supporting the revised bill, mostly because he heard that the program was such a success in Utah.

Despite complaints about Insure-Rite that have been well-publicized in Utah, Anderson says flatly that the insurance industry's lobbyists are lying and that the program has indeed reduced the number of uninsured motorists there. She offers no evidence, other than Insure-Rite's own unsubstantiated claims, to back up that opinion.

In 1995 Utah started collecting $1 for each of the 1.6 million vehicles registered in the state, and Insure-Rite, to no one's surprise, won the contract.

"It was an insider deal all the way," says Doug Foxley, the Utah lobbyist for another bidder, Automated Tracking Systems of Hudson, Ohio. ATS did submit a higher bid than Insure-Rite's, and Atkinson defends the bidding process as proper. It's not known whether ATS is going to bid on the work in Colorado.

Insure-Rite's contract began July 1, 1995, and within six months it started sending out thousands of warning letters. The more letters it sent, the more the company got paid.

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