Topeka — Democratic candidate for insurance commissioner Jim Garner on Thursday blasted Republican opponent Sandy Praeger of Lawrence for accepting tens of thousands of dollars from the insurance industry.
Standing in front of the headquarters of a conglomerate of insurance companies, Garner said Praeger should give back the $50,750 she has received from insurance interests. About $20,000 of that, including the in-kind donation of office furniture, came from AmVestors Financial, its executives and related companies.
"You can't be a good watchdog if you're being fed by the person you are supposed to be watching," Garner said. He is pledging not to take money from companies or individuals regulated by the insurance commissioner.
But Praeger said she would not return the money. She said her solicitation of funds from insurance companies would have no influence on her decisions in office.
"The contributions are not going to affect how I regulate," she said.
Contributions from numerous insurance companies made up nearly one-third of her campaign funds as of late July.
The current insurance commissioner, Kathleen Sebelius, has refused to take money from insurance companies during her eight-year tenure. She now is the Democratic candidate for governor.
Sebelius' no-take policy wrested control of the insurance department away from the insurance industry and should continue, Garner said.
"After eight years of Kansas consumers having the upper hand, large insurance corporations are jumping at the chance to buy back the office," Garner said. "Sandy has obviously chosen to lock arms with the insurance industry."
Praeger accused Garner of negative campaigning, and said she wanted to focus on other issues, such as providing a balanced regulatory process to ensure that insurance companies can do business in Kansas and consumers can benefit from a competitive marketplace.
Garner said the next insurance commissioner must remain independent from insurers, especially because of potential high-profile decisions.
The proposed merger between Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas and Anthem Insurance of Indianapolis is pending in the court system. And the agency is investigating complaints against Farmers Insurance Group that the company is improperly using credit reports to raise insurance rates. Farmers denies any wrongdoing.
Praeger has taken campaign funds both from Blue Cross officials and Farmers Insurance.
Garner, currently a Coffeyville legislator and the House Democratic leader, said insurance contributions had influenced Praeger's voting record during her legislative career. Praeger is a state senator and chairwoman of the committee that deals with insurance legislation.
He said Praeger "capitulated" in 2001 and agreed to legislation that increased mental health benefits but not to the same extent as physical health benefits.
Paradoxically, Garner takes credit in his campaign literature for playing a key role in the passage of that same bill for which he criticized Praeger.
Praeger said she helped make the pared-down mental health bill law because a full-parity bill would not have passed the Legislature.
"He wasn't in the middle of that debate," she said. "It was a very close vote to get what we got. I fought the industry all along the way."