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HELENA — State Auditor Monica Lindeen, whose office regulates the insurance and investment industries in Montana, kicked off her re-election campaign on Monday, saying she wants to continue as a strong advocate for consumers.

Lindeen, a Democrat, said Montana families and small businesses need an “aggressive advocate” when they have problems with their insurance or investments.

“I’ve been that advocate for the last three years, returning more than $190 million to Montanans who fell victim to securities fraud and forcing insurance companies to pay more than $12 million in claims owed to Montanans,” she said last week.

Lindeen, 49, is running for a second four-year term as state auditor, having won the job in 2008 by defeating Republican Duane Grimes, with 53.5 percent of the votes cast.

Republican state Rep. Derek Skees, of Whitefish, has filed to run against her, and, so far, is the only GOP candidate in the race.

Skees, an outspoken foe of the 2010 federal health reform law, has said he expects the law to be found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and that Lindeen has overstepped her authority by implementing some of its provisions.

Lindeen said she’s done nothing more than attempt to enforce federal and state law on health insurance — “which is my job” — and “implement those reforms in a way that protects our state rights and our ability to regulate at the state level.”

Lindeen asked the 2011 Legislature to give her office authority to help create a health insurance “exchange” or Internet marketplace in Montana, as directed by the federal law, and to review proposed health insurance rates. The Republican-controlled Legislature rejected both proposals.

That rejection means the federal government will set up its own systems to carry out both tasks in Montana, she said.

Lindeen said if she’s re-elected, she’ll ask the Legislature again for authority to review health insurance rates in Montana, rather than have the feds do it, and that she’ll continue to talk with federal regulators about how Montana’s insurance exchange will be set up — if the federal law remains in force.

Lindeen said she has some problems with the federal health law, too, such as its 2014 mandate for all people to buy private insurance. But if it needs to be adjusted, Congress and the Legislature should look at solutions rather than “playing politics” and deadlocking on doing anything, she said.

“We had four pieces of legislation (before the 2011 Legislature) that did nothing more than allow us to maintain our regulatory authority here in Montana,” she said. “(Republicans) refused to pass it. And now we’re being pre-empted by the federal government.

“Everybody understands that things need to be fixed in this bill, but they are too worried about the next election, and who’s going to be the next president, and who’s going to control Congress.”

Lindeen said she also intends to propose a state constitutional amendment that would change the name of her office to “commissioner of securities and insurance,” which reflects the actual job and lets Montanans know what the office does.

“I think it’s valuable to the public, so they know who to call if they have a problem with (insurance or investments),” she said.

Lindeen is a former state legislator from Huntley and ran unsuccessfully for Montana’s U.S. House seat in 2006, losing to U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. From 1995-2000, she was co-owner and manager of Montana Communications Network, one of Montana’s first Internet service providers.

She said she uses her experience as a small-business owner “every day” on the job, looking for ways to streamline functions of the office and strengthen its consumer-protection activities.

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