State GOP urged to oppose insurance measure

Consumer advocates held a news conference – well, maybe not exactly a news conference – outside the California Republican Party’s spring convention this morning in Burlingame to ask the GOP to shun a November ballot measure pushed by one of its biggest donors.

Consumer Watchdog and the Consumer Federation of California want the party to oppose the auto insurance measure being pushed by George Joseph, the chairman and founder of Mercury Insurance. I say it was not exactly a news conference because I was the only reporter who showed up; one other, from the World Journal, arrived just as the speakers were finishing talking to me. The organizers were, however, undeterred.

Stedge and Holober“We’re appealing to their sense of fairness, that they don’t want to penalize hard-working Californians – that’s why we’re here,” said federation executive director Richard Holober, standing near a table on which piles of phony $1,000 bills bearing Joseph’s visage were stacked – a representation of the $2 million that Joseph has given the state GOP in the past two years. “We hope they have an open mind.”

CRP spokeswoman Jennifer Kerns said the party has not yet taken a position for or against the measure.

Holober said this is only the latest battle in George’s 20-plus-year war – including the Mercury-bankrolled Proposition 17 of 2010 – to roll back consumer protections put in place by voters with Proposition 103 of 1988.

The Joseph-funded committee supporting the measure contends it rewards consumers for following the law and will let consumers get a new discount for having car insurance. Current law only lets insurance companies offer consumers continuous coverage, or loyalty discount for maintaining car insurance if the consumers stays with the same company, the measure’s supporters say; the measure will let consumers receive a discount for their years of continuous automobile insurance coverage, regardless of the company where they seek insurance.

It’s an improvement over Prop. 17, they say, in that the discount will be available even to those with an interruption in insurance due to military service or up to 18 months of unemployment.

But Holober and Consumer Watchdog’s Brian Stedge insisted George’s measure will wind up penalizing many Californians who go without insurance (and presumably, without driving) for more than 18 months due to unemployment, illness or use of mass public transit. There’s no connection between a driver’s record of continuous insurance coverage and that driver’s safety record, he said, and so its unfair to charge someone up to 40 percent more for insurance just because they went without it for a while.

This is nothing more than Prop. 17 – which 52 percent of voters rejected less than two years ago – warmed over, he argued. “It does feel like ‘Night of the Living Dead’ here … fueled not by human flesh but by money – the zombie comes back to life.”

Stedge called it “a punishment for not driving a car” and “a billionaire’s attack on the middle class.”

They brought as an example Sharada Polavarapu, 30, of San Francisco, who said she relies on the city’s excellent public transportation system and so doesn’t currently drive or carry auto insurance. But under this measure, if she were to go back to driving and start buying insurance again, her premiums would rise from about $1,200 to almost $1,700 per year.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    This measure is unfair to bicyclists, people who sit around a lot, accident-prone drivers and people who only purchase policies to be able to obtain a license.

  • John W.

    Re: #1

    He paints with broad brush…

    It’s also unfair to people who live in the City, use transit and rent a Zip Car when they need it rather than dealing with the unique and costly hassles of maintaining an infrequently used car in the City. If circumstances change and it again makes sense for them to own a vehicle, they should be penalized for break in coverage, even if they have a perfect driving record? I’m drawing from personal knowledge but won’t get more specific here.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    Actually, these self-styled consumer advocates are more interested in bashing the Republicans than helping drivers,

  • John W.

    Re #3

    Actually, when the issue was on the ballot last time, I didn’t think of it as a Republican vs Democrat issue. I assumed Mercury had pols from both parties in its pocket. To me, it’s always been an issue of a corporation using the initiative process to advance it’s own interest. It’s a free country, but I begin with the assumption that consumer protection is not uppermost in Mercury’s mind.