Insurance agents in Legislature get test exemptions

Lawmakers were outraged when they learned outgoing state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine gave himself insurance licenses the day before he left office without taking classes and tests required of applicants.

They quickly moved to outlaw the practice, with both chambers passing bills to do so within a few weeks. But Oxendine wasn’t the only one getting exempted from mandates that govern most agents, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

At least 15 lawmakers with insurance licenses, almost all of whom have voted for the anti-Oxendine bills, have been excused for years by the commissioner’s office from annual continuing education mandated for insurance agents.

Among those receiving the exemption: the same legislator who wrote the bill that would bar future insurance commissioners from giving themselves exemptions from testing requirements.

Most, but not all, of the exempted lawmakers serve on the House and Senate committees that handle insurance legislation.

Insurance licensees in Georgia are required to get 15 hours of continuing education, including at least three hours on ethics, to renew their licenses each year.

Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, who until last year was chairman of the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee, said at a minimum, lawmakers should have to fill out forms showing why they deserve the exemption.

“I am going to take a good, hard look at it,” Hudgens said. “I don’t think we ought to be treating members of the General Assembly who are selling insurance products any different than we treat the agent that is in Vidalia, Georgia, in an independent agency.”

Julianne Thompson, state coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, which is part of a coalition pushing for stronger ethics at the statehouse, doesn’t think exceptions should be made.

“We have a part-time Legislature. They meet a few months out of the year,” Thompson said. “For insurance professionals to be exempt ... is absolutely ridiculous. They have plenty of time to take those continuing education courses.

“They need to set an example, and that’s setting a very poor example.”

Rep. Bill Hembree, R-Winston, a Nationwide Insurance agent who sponsored one of the Oxen-dine bills, gets the exemption. But Hembree said he also takes continuing education classes.

“I chose to go to get continuing education because it makes me a better agent,” said Hembree, who was first licensed in Georgia in 1983.

While Hembree said he’s not sure lawmakers should get the exemption, he said, “I think it’s up to the individual. If a person in the industry feels like they need updates of continuing education, they should do that on their own.”

Hembree’s legislation would prevent insurance commissioners from granting themselves licenses without taking mandatory tests. His bill has passed the House and is awaiting Senate action. A Senate version, which has passed that chamber, prevents any state officials who grant professional licenses from exempting themselves from educational or testing requirements to get a license.

The General Assembly passed legislation in 1992 giving the insurance commissioner the right to exempt or reduce continuing education requirements for lawmakers who are insurance agents and involved in “insurance-related legislative activities.”

Lawmakers are one of several groups — including people who teach insurance courses and inactive agents — who are eligible for exemption from the requirement that agents get 15 hours per year of continuing education. There is some variation in the number of required hours based on the type of license. Also, longtime agents have fewer required hours.

The commissioner’s office said about 300 of more than 100,000 agents licensed by the state get exemptions.

In the past, insurance officials said, lawmakers filled out forms saying what “insurance-related legislative activities” they were involved in. But in recent years, lawmakers with insurance licenses were granted “permanent exemptions” while serving in the General Assembly without having to state why they earned the exemption.

Some lawmakers said they have sent in letters or filled out forms saying why they should get the exemption. Some said they have not.

Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, has held a license for 14 years and is a member of the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee, but he didn’t sponsor any insurance legislation this year. He received the exemption, although he said he took some continuing education courses last year.

“I didn’t ask for it, but I’m glad to get it,” he said. “I could care less if I had it.”

Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, who has had a license since 1977, said the exemption “has served the state of Georgia well” but declined to comment further.

Mike Royal, an agent from Johns Creek who has spent time at the Capitol working on insurance legislation, doesn’t have any problem with lawmakers getting an exemption.

“I have learned more relevant information for my career and my customers working on legislation than I have in any continuing education classroom,” Royal said.

But Kelly Smith of Loganville, president of Southeast Preneed and Financial Services, said the exemption gives lawmakers an “unfair privilege.”

“If I can run a company and find time to do it, so should they,” said Smith, who has insurance licenses in six states.

Smith said Hudgens “should now rescind these permanent exemptions as another necessary change to level the licensing field fairly and eliminate favoritism.”

With all the hours lawmakers put in on the insurance committees, Rep. Steve Davis, RMcDonough, said he can understand why legislator-agents would get credit toward their continuing education.

But Davis, a real estate broker who serves on the House Insurance Committee, noted that other lawmakers with professional licenses aren’t necessarily exempt from such training.

“The perception [of exemptions] is very poor,” Davis said. “We spend a lot of time down here. I don’t want to discount that. But no, we are not above anyone else, and we shouldn’t be above anyone else.”

How we got the story

After writing about outgoing Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine giving himself insurance licenses, AJC reporter James Salzer received a tip that state lawmakers have been getting exemptions from requirements to retain insurance licenses. An open records request to the Insurance Commissioner’s Office brought a list of lawmakers getting the exemption and a copy of the state regulations allowing for the exemptions. Salzer interviewed Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, several lawmakers with the exemptions and some not in the field, insurance officials and ethics watchdogs.