Power Steering

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

Insure-Rite's biggest booster, Kelly Atkinson, says the only reason the report doesn't confirm the Insure-Rite results is that "we have the most conservative auditor in the world."

But Utah lawmakers such as Holmgren are upset with Insure-Rite's record-keeping--or lack thereof. "I just have trouble believing that they wouldn't keep everything, especially when they knew they were in a test mode," Holmgren says. He wonders whether the company threw away its records on purpose to hide the nature of its performance from the public.

"That's just blatantly not true," Kasteler says.
The Insure-Rite president contends that it just wasn't practical to save the database tapes, because they amounted to twelve gigabytes of information. "We didn't want to have to build a warehouse to put all of the tapes that we would have to make," Kasteler says. Holmgren doesn't buy it. After all, twelve gigs of information can fit into a file cabinet these days. When confronted with that fact, Kasteler says he just never thought about saving the tapes, because he was working with a "fluid database" and was concerned only with making that accurate.

Besides, says Kasteler, the state didn't ask him to save the tapes, so he didn't. Now that the state has asked him to, he says, he is saving the information.

Insurance agent Allen has another theory: The percentage of people who received warning letters dropped--leading to Insure-Rite's boasts--only because mistakes were weeded out of the Insure-Rite system and insured motorists were no longer receiving the letters. "What we've done," says Allen, "is paid millions of dollars to clean up a database that isn't really doing any good anyway."

Meanwhile, Kelly Atkinson, who is no longer a lawmaker, says he's traveled to California, Nevada and Texas, at the company's expense, to promote Insure-Rite. He paid for one of his visits to Colorado; the company paid for his return trip. Last spring in Philadelphia, says Atkinson, he spent a few days at the National Conference of State Legislators, standing in an Insure-Rite booth talking about the benefits of the program to legislators around the country. "I get pretty juiced about this stuff," he says.

And why shouldn't he? Last year, when Atkinson ran for a congressional seat vacated by scandal-ridden U.S. Representative Enid Waldholtz, Kasteler gave him $1,000 and became his campaign finance director. Several other directors or spouses of directors of Insure-Rite gave him money as well, but Atkinson still lost in the primary. Kasteler says he also supported Atkinson in his bid to be mayor of West Jordan, Utah, an election Atkinson lost on November 4. "We went through a war together, and I guess that kind of brings you closer," Atkinson says.

"It's disgusting," says Claire Geddes, a political watchdog in Salt Lake City. "A lot of times these politicians aren't taking money right now, they're just making friends for the future. Those people looking at running for office in the future know what the costs are going to be, so that's why they make these friends. It's just a conflict of interest run rampant."

If his form of rewarding loyalty holds true, Utah's Richard Kasteler will be a supporter of both Norma Anderson and Elsie Lacy for quite some time: Anderson has filed to run for the U.S. Senate and Lacy for Colorado secretary of state.

Norma Anderson vows that Insure-Rite's controversies in Utah won't seep into Colorado. A state committee will pick Insure-Rite--or some other company--by the end of the year, and letters will start going out sometime early in 1998. As for the Utah stories about thousands of insured drivers erroneously receiving warning letters, Anderson says, "Guess what? Colorado will be testing it all the way through."

Bill Schroeder says that if those horror stories start bubbling up here, he will try to get the program axed. The same goes for Dorothy Gotlieb, a Denver Republican who voted for the bill when it went through the House Transportation Committee but didn't hear the stories about problems from Utah. "None of that came up at all," Gotlieb says.

Killing the program wouldn't be easy, however, because the fee is already being collected. There is a sunset provision that will phase it out automatically if the legislature doesn't vote to re-enact the program after two years. However, the DMV is likely to lobby to keep the program because that department may get to keep all the money collected from the $1 fee that isn't paid to the database contractor. Although that money is in dispute, some officials claim that the leftover funds will not be subject to the taxing and spending limitations of Amendment 1 because the vehicle-registration charge is not a tax but a fee for service.

By this time next year the state will have collected more than $3.6 million, but don't look for an itemized bill on vehicle-registration forms. "It's invisible in your registration," says the DMV's John Duncan.

State bureaucrats and Insure-Rite supporters say that the legislature always has the option of lowering the fee charged to motorists.

"Yeah, right," is the sarcastic response of opponent Stan Matsunaka, a Democratic state senator from Larimer County. Insurance-industry lobbyists in Utah say that bureaucrats and lawmakers dangled a similar carrot there, but they note that the fee remains at a dollar per year for every car and truck owner.

"I think there are a lot better ways for us to spend our money," Matsunaka says, "than to pay some company to tell us who they think doesn't have insurance.

"I don't know if it's going to do any good. All I know is that we're spending the money.

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