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Los Angeles Times
Nov 07, 1999

Referendum Hide-and-Seek

The special-interest sponsors of an insurance measure are playing a complicated game with the voters.
There's nothing new about special interests designing and writing a ballot measure and funding a signature-gathering campaign. If the slogan includes "justice," it must be the trial lawyers. If it includes "fraud," it must be insurance companies. Or think of last year's titanic, big-spending campaign for Indian gambling.

Still, a current push by insurers to repeal a pair of laws allowing lawsuits by injured parties, mostly in auto accidents, against the at-fault driver's insurance company, is remarkable for combining all the elements of an "Astroturf" campaign: a $50-million corporate effort clothed in what looks like grass-roots support.

Whether or not the measure itself, aimed at the March 7 primary ballot, is worthy is an issue for another day. But the marketing of the proposed referendum is ammunition for those who rightly demand that the true financial supporters of a proposed ballot initiative be clearly disclosed to petition signers.

The army of paid signature gatherers nabbing shoppers in supermarket parking lots insists that "Consumers Against Fraud and Higher Insurance Costs," the umbrella group supporting the referendum, is really a consumer organization. But peel back some layers and ... Consumers Against Fraud, for instance, lists an address - a suite in a pricey Sacramento building across from the Capitol - that is the office of Mary J. Griffin & Associates, a lobbying firm. A sponsor of the measure named Crime Victims United lists an address in the same building, a branch office of the public relations firm Burson Marsteller. This is all perfectly legal, but it is certainly enough to make voters wonder. ...

The listed insurance company sponsors, including Allstate, State Farm and Farmers, can try to hide behind the consumer veil, but voters will eventually demand that the measure be defended by its real backers. ... Until disclosure measures that pass constitutional muster can be crafted, voters should listen with a skeptical ear to the claims of paid signature gatherers, including the current "Sign here for lower insurance rates." Read the tiny print, if you can. And don't be bullied into signing anything that raises doubt.

Los Angeles Times Editorial

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