Haley insurance nominee facing continued scrutiny
COLUMBIA — State senators continue to handle Gov. Nikki Haley’s nomination of a former lobbyist to run the state insurance agency with a degree of scrutiny rarely seen in South Carolina.
Just as they did last week, senators on the Banking and Insurance Committee Wednesday again decided to continue the confirmation hearing for Ray Farmer at a later date.
Committee confirmation hearings for S.C. agency head picks are typically brief, routine and devoid of much controversy.
Not so for Farmer, who already has been running the insurance department on an interim basis but needs the confirmation of senators to permanently take the helm of an agency that’s gone without a full-time leader for more than a year.
The central question facing Farmer’s candidacy appears to be whether he has the qualities and background needed to address what some senators and others have described as an out-of-whack insurance market in which coastal property owners may be getting gouged.
“Our people are getting soaked, figuratively and literally, in a bit of a calamity,” said Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway.
Still, Farmer’s nomination is not in jeopardy, several senators told The Post and Courier this week.
Farmer must make it out of committee before the full Senate can vote on his nomination.
Unlike last week, Farmer did not testify Wednesday.
Instead, officials heard for close to an hour from Daryl Ferguson, a retired telecommunications executive from Beaufort who has estimated that he has spent 4,000 hours studying insurance issues.
Among those in attendance at Wednesday’s hearing were a handful of current insurance industry lobbyists, who Orangeburg Democratic Sen. Brad Hutto said have taken a keen interest in the fate of Farmer’s nomination.
Ferguson strongly opposes Farmer’s nomination, contending his time as an insurance industry lobbyist should disqualify him.
Ferguson said South Carolina has been targeted as a “honeyhole” by the insurance industry because the state’s weak regulation of the industry has made it a soft target for insurers looking to maximize profits.
Ferguson was featured last year in a Post and Courier series, “Storm of Money,” which revealed that South Carolina has some of the highest home insurance rates in the nation, and that state regulators have done little to examine the industry’s secret black box computer programs and other arcane rules that make our rates so high.
“It looks like our citizens are subsidizing citizens in other states,” Roebuck GOP Sen. Lee Bright said Wednesday. “It just seems to me we’ve got a crisis here.”
Ferguson has talked extensively with Farmer, but those conversations have done little to resolve the insurance activist’s concerns.
“When I ask Ray a question about customer service, he can’t relate to what I’m talking about,” Ferguson told senators.
In an interview following Wednesday’s hearing, Farmer again said his combination of work in the insurance industry, where he most recently worked as a lobbyist, and previous work as a regulator and adjuster in Georgia makes him uniquely qualified to run the insurance agency.
Farmer said he’s looking forward to responding to Ferguson’s assertions as the confirmation process continues.
Backing Farmer’s candidacy this week was Otis Rawl, president and CEO of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.
Rawl told senators that the issues Ferguson has highlighted should not be an indictment of Farmer, who deserves the chance to lead the insurance agency.
“At some point, it may be an indictment of some former commissioners,” Rawl said.
Even if Farmer is eventually confirmed, the issues Ferguson has brought to the fore have captured senators’ attention.
Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill and chairman of the Banking and Insurance Committee, said he has formed a subcommittee that will delve into how the insurance industry is functioning in the state.