Republican Mike Villines was elected to the California Assembly in 2004 to represent the counties of Fresno and Madera. He serves on the board of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides educational programs for leaders of state legislatures, and on the board of the Sen. Kenneth L. Maddy Institute for Leadership and Ethics at California State University, Fresno.
Prior to serving on the Assembly, he was an aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson, a chief of staff to former state Sen. Chuck Poochigian, and a public relations and communications small business owner for six years.
Consumer groups have criticized Villines for being too closely aligned with insurance companies, but he notes he has taken no money from insurance companies and touts his record as an independent, pragmatic businessman who will put the protection of consumers first.
In 2006, he was elected to serve as Assembly Republican Leader, but he was forced out of the position because he broke party ranks in 2009 by agreeing to raise taxes to close the state deficit.
“I’m a former business owner That’s one of the reasons why I want to run for this nonpartisan job,” Villines said. “Being insurance commissioner is not a Republican job, it’s not a Democratic job. It’s a business person’s job with very specific things you’re supposed to do. I have the experience delivering for my constituents and cutting through politics. Sometimes that makes me the hero, sometimes it makes me the heel. But here’s a guy who’s independent, who puts voters first.”
Villines said that if elected, he plans to protect consumers, keep rates low, protect solvency and ensure freedom of choice in insurance. He doesn’t believe consumer and business interests are necessarily in conflict.
“Ideally, you get to a spot where everyone gets what they need. . . [Y]ou have to negotiate what’s good for both sides . . . I want everyone at the table, to get everyone there, and find the best solution,” he said. “I’m a pragmatic person. This isn’t a philosophical job; it’s a day-to-day, taking care of consumers and hopefully businesses, creating an environment that allows them to thrive and compete, which benefits consumers. We should all be partners to create more jobs and get product out quicker.”
On Villines’ list of priorities are to combat insurance fraud, implement efficiencies so new products can reach the market more quickly, and address workers’ compensation and earthquake insurance rates.
Insurance fraud costs every Californian an average of $500 per year. Villines said he’d like to cross-share information with law enforcement and motor vehicles officials, and leverage technology to go after those who are committing illegal acts.
He’d also like to see rates and products approved more quickly, which he would do with an improved customer service approach at the department. He said California is notorious for taking a year or more to approve new products, when some states do it in 60 to 90 days.
“When someone wants to reduce rates, we should approve that right away and move it through the process. That’s really a healthy thing for the state,” he said. “It’s good for a agents and brokers to be able to offer more choices and better service.”
Like his opponent, Villines believes the 27 percent rate increase sought by workers’ compensation insurers “would devastate small businesses.” The industry needs to consider what’s reasonable, he said. “Is it 27 percent? I don’t think so. That shows a disconnect with reality and the economy.”
Villines said he would work to keep rates as low as possible, but if increases are necessary, he would first communicate with small businesses so they understand why an increase is important. Second, he would not raise rates without trying to reduce inefficiencies. “If workers’ comp rates need to go up, then we need to see corresponding reforms on fees,” he said.
Villines said earthquake insurance needs to be made more affordable as well. “We need to do a better job in creating a competitive structure for earthquake insurance,” he said. “It’s a very technical issue to solve, but I would like to find a way to rely less on reinsurance and have more competition in the market in heavily concentrated earthquake zones.”
The next commissioner will be charged with implementing national health care reforms. Villines said he wants to give Californians more affordable health care choices by, among other things, allowing them to shop for insurance across state lines. He also wants individuals and businesses to decide what benefits are in their health plans.
Ultimately, Villines said his decisions will be “tough but fair,” as well as consumer-driven, with an eye on economic recovery.
“There are over 300,000 insurance-related jobs in this state, and we need every single one of them,” he said, noting California’s nearly 13 percent unemployment rate.
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