John Morrison: a man for the people

John Morrison: a legacy of family committed to law

What do you call a guy who gets you affordable health care, protects your privacy, guards your retirement, stops discrimination and enforces your contract rights?

How about a guy who makes sure you're insured against terrorism, launches a national website for consumers, increases public access to state lands and sparks a collaborative process to manage suburban growth and protect open space? Or a guy who launches a new industry in Montana, recruits dozens of new businesses to the state and starts a $60 million venture capital fund?

This one is State Auditor John Morrison, commissioner of insurance and securities.

Since Morrison was first elected in 2000, he has transformed the Auditor's office into a juggernaut for progressive reform and a Montana original. Some say no one in state government has accomplished more positive change for this state in the last five years.

Morrison comes from a political family. His grandfather was the governor of Nebraska and his father, who died suddenly last year, was a former Montana Supreme Court Justice. Before his election as Auditor, Morrison was widely regarded as one of Montana's premier attorneys.

If insurance and securities make you yawn, consider yourself normal. But then think again. Insurance takes in a whole lot of interesting territory: birth and death, sickness and injuries, fires, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, hail, floods, aids, global warming and terrorism, alcohol and drug abuse, personal privacy, medical care, car wrecks and highway safety, home ownership and financial security. Now add a dash of securities: scam artists, corrupt stock brokers, phony businesses, pyramid and ponzi schemes and the brighter side--economic development through capital formation.

Morrison, who chaired the special committee formed to respond to the insurance issues arising from September 11, notes that many victims in the towers of the World Trade Center left answering machine messages for their families about their life insurance policies. "In their final moments of life, these people wanted to be sure their families were protected," Morrison says. "Insurance is a promise that folks count on; one of our jobs is to make sure that promise is kept."

It's a job Morrison has done well. He and his staff have recovered more than $30 million for insurance consumers since he started in 2001. The claims spring from every kind of insurance: health, life, auto, homeowners, business, crop/ hail, workers comp and more. Morrison is proud of the work of his team: "We make sure the consumer gets the benefit of their bargain," But getting insurance claims paid is just the tip of the iceberg at the SAO."

Morrison, who credits his staff for doing the heavy lifting, says: "We're just doing our job, but I think what we do makes a difference in a lot of people's lives."

Health Care Reform

At the Little People's Academy, a day care center in Bozeman, Terri Quitaro's three employees now have health insurance for the first time. One of them, Angie, just got her broken ear drum fixed and now she can hear. Angie is one of thousands of small business employees across Montana who now have health coverage thanks to Morrison's work on health care reform. "Every single person in this country deserves access to quality health care," Morrison says. "We're not there yet, but we've covered many thousands of people and we're laying the groundwork for universal coverage."

Less than a year into his first term, Morrison began traveling the state, holding town meetings with hundreds of concerned Montanans, highlighting the problem and discussing solutions. One in five Montanans have no health coverage, public or private, Morrison said. And most of Montana's uninsured work full time for a business with fewer than 10 employees.

The state was under funding the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and leaving millions of dollars on the table. Seniors lacked medicine they needed. Doctors could not afford to treat low income patients under Medicaid. Meanwhile, Montana's tobacco tax was one of the lowest in the country and tobacco related disease costs soared.

Morrison rallied business, labor, health care providers, teachers, senior citizens and others behind his plan to increase Montana's low tobacco tax and use the money for health care programs: helping small businesses afford health insurance, fully funding CHIP, helping seniors and disabled people afford prescription medicine and increasing payments for health care providers under Medicaid.

Morrison worked with the Alliance for Healthy Montana to get his plan on the 2004 ballot. After Montana voters approved "I-149" (increasing the cigarette tax by a dollar per pack) the 2005 legislature passed every part of Morrison's plan.

About 7,000 Montanans are now covered under Insure Montana, a unique combination of refundable tax credits and a state chartered purchasing pool, that has become a model for other states. Another 3000 kids are now covered under CHIP and Big Sky Rx will soon provide cheaper prescription medicines for thousands of Montanans.

Along the way, Morrison and his team saved a Montana health insurer from bankruptcy by taking it over, nursing it back to financial health and finding a new parent company for it, preserving coverage for 15,000 Montanans and a dozen jobs in Kalispell. Morrison also supervises the state's high risk health insurance pool and he created a premium assistance plan that opens the program to hundreds of low-income Montanans with serious illnesses and injuries. Morrison just put $2 million of the pool's surplus cash into a permanent endowment to assure the assistance plan will be there always.

"No one has done more to move the ball forward on health care than John Morrison," Says former Speaker of the House Gary Mathews. "Thousands of Montanans now have coverage because of his leadership."

Consumer Protection

Morrison and his office have successfully prosecuted the largest insurance and securities cases in the state's history, prompting one commentator to call him "the Elliot Spitzer of the West."

In a case against a stock broker in Butte, Morrison and his team recovered $1.5 million in losses for 38 Butte investors, imposed a $1 million fine, and changed the company's national business practices. Steve Tomazich, one of the Butte victims, says Morrison recovered not just his small savings, but his dignity. 

Morrison has cracked down on excessive, unauthorized and unsuitable stock trading, as well as pyramid and ponzi schemes, fake health insurance and phony medical discount cards. He recently announced a historic settlement in the case involving former Montana gubernatorial candidate Pat Davison and Davidson's former firm UBS Payne Webber. In what may be the biggest stock broker fraud case in America, Morrison recovered about $7 million dollars for Montana investors.

Because "the best law enforcement is preventing the crime in the first place," Morrison launched InvestSmart Montana, an investor education program. Funded by grants from a national non-profit group, InvestSmart has brought SAO staff, the Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission, AARP and other experts to twenty some towns across Montana, delivering it's message to thousands of seniors and other Montanans.

Morrison also wrote and secured passage of comprehensive new laws to protect the privacy of personal medical and financial information, to restrict the use of credit information by insurance companies, and to prevent non-profit health insurers (like Blue Cross/Blue Shield) from converting to for-profit without extensive public hearings (and then only after returning any surplus cash to the public.

Economic development

In 2001, Morrison led the creation of a new Montana industry: captive insurance companies. Since guiding the enabling law through the 2001 legislature, Morrison has helped recruit nearly 30 of these specialized businesses to Montana and three captive management companies have sprouted. The Montana Captive Insurance Association drew prospects from around the nation to Big Sky for its first conference last summer.

There's more. As Securities Commissioner, Morrison is charged with promoting capital formation, which he has taken as another invitation to jump into the middle of economic development. His office has helped dozens of businesses like the Glendive Clothing Company get started by raising capital through small stock offerings. And Morrison worked with the Montana Ambassadors and local "eco devo" directors to develop a Montana venture capital fund that the 2005 legislature enacted.

Liz Harris, director of the Flathead Economic Development Authority and a recent Montana Ambassadors President, says the new fund--patterned after one in Oklahoma--should result in tens of millions of dollars being invested in Montana businesses. "John was the driving force behind this fund," she says. "Without him, I doubt it would have happened."

Public Access to State Lands

The Auditor serves on the state land board with the governor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state. The five officials manage the state school trust lands and approve all state land transactions.

The school trust lands are scattered around the state and yield revenue--from timber, mining, oil and gas, agriculture, commercial and recreational use-- that partially funds Montana's public schools.

A study begun by Morrison's predecessor, Mark O'Keefe, and released by Morrison's office in 2001, revealed that more than half of all the school trust lands are surrounded completely by private land and inaccessible to the public. Morrison and his staff brought together interested parties and created the State Land Bank that sells isolated parcels and uses the resulting cash to purchase accessible land.

The proposal was supported by the Montana Stockgrowers and the Montana Wildlife Federation (not often allies) among others and opens more land to hunting, fishing and other recreation while generating more money for the school trust. More than 20,000 accessible acres have already been added to the trust. 

Another challenge facing the State Land Board is suburban growth into trust land that historically has been managed for timber or agriculture. Some of that land has become very valuable for development that would ruin traditional open space uses.

The problem recently came to a head in Whitefish where 13,000 acres of state land, shared by loggers and farmers, hunters and anglers, hikers and bikers, was slated for commercial and residential subdivision. After 300 citizens convened in Whitefish to object, Morrison stepped in and helped form a community group to advise the Land Board on alternatives. Using conservation easements and other creative tools, the group prepared a plan that assures the school trust its fair share while protecting most of the open space surrounding Whitefish.

State Senator Dan Weinberg says Morrison's leadership was key in the effort and adds, "We hope this will be a model for other communities facing these growth issues."

National leadership

September 11, 2001 was, among other terrible things, the largest insurance disaster the world had ever seen.

Legal questions begged to be answered and regulators struggled to address how terrorism would be covered in the future. Morrison, then a freshman at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, was picked to chair the emergency task force that responded to the crisis. The group worked for more than a year, keeping terrorism coverage in place for personal insurance (auto, homeowners, health and life) and assisting Congress to create the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. Morrison's work was covered widely in the Wall Street Journal and other national publications.

The same year, Morrison chaired another national committee that rolled out an internet website where consumers can file complaints and get customer complaint data and financial information about any legitimate insurance company: The idea had been floating around for years, but opposition from the insurance industry kept it at bay; until Morrison came along. "John is very focused and determined," says NAIC executive vice president Andy Beal. "He's got courage and he gets things done."

Later, Morrison chaired the national group's health insurance committee and led a national crackdown on fake insurance companies and fake medical discount cards that was twice featured in Consumer reports. Representing all state insurance commissioners, he also testified in the U.S. Senate about solutions to the uninsured crisis.

As the insurance market becomes global, the need for consumer protection and fair rules extends beyond America's borders. Morrison was one of three commissioners that represented America in the first meetings with Chinese insurance officials in Beijing. The mission began a relationship that has flowered. The countries have signed a cooperation agreement that encourages democratic reforms in the worlds largest country. Morrison says the relationship is critical to Montana's and America's future. "Playing our cards right with China will be the most important foreign policy issue of this century," he says. "The financial sector is a big part of that."

In 2002, Morrison was named one of 10 rising stars nationally among 100 "Democrats to Watch," by the Democratic Leadership Council. He was reelected easily in 2004, but was upset in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in 2006. Writers have speculated about Morrison's political future since the tough loss. "They say you learn more from your defeats than your victories," Morrison notes. "I learned a lot from that campaign and I think I've grown as a person. We made some bad mistakes, but you have to move on and do better next time." Morrison cites one big upside: "I met literally thousands of wonderful people who care tremendously about Montana and our country."

And, as a Democrat, Morrison is happy with the overall election results in Montana and nationally. Despite a bitter primary campaign, he flew around the state with Democratic nominee Jon Tester in June calling for unity and led a rally for Tester in Butte-where Morrison beat him soundly-and asked Butte to climb aboard with Tester.

On election day in November, Tester unseated incumbent Senator Conrad Burns by 2,733 votes out of 405,033 cast. Democratic Party Chairman Dennis McDonald wrote recently that Morrison's public support for Tester was a big factor in the race, which gave Democrats a majority in the U.S. Senate.

Morrison helped move Montana forward as chief Montana counsel in the case against Big Tobacco; the case ended in a settlement that brought the state nearly a billion dollars over 25 years. John Morrison has two years left as Montana's state auditor. He has already left a big, positive footprint on Montana, and all from the lesser known office of State Auditor.

What will come next? "I don't know," says Morrison. "There are still a lot of great things to do for Montana right where I am."


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