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Special ticket deal for gun-control forum Thursday

The rhetoric could get hot at a gun-control this Thursday evening in San Francisco.

The Commonwealth Club of California is convening a panel on “Gun Laws: California and The Nation – What Should Be Done?” at 6 p.m. Thursday in its offices on the second floor of 595 Market St. (at Second) in San Francisco.

Scheduled to participate are Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who has introduced a bill to regulate ammunition sales; Benjamin Van Houten, managing attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence; San Francisco Police Sgt. Kelly Dunn, who serves in her department’s Special Victims and Psychiatric Liaison units; and Calguns Foundation cofounder and chairman Gene Hoffman, with San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Page Editor John Diaz as the moderator.

“Our panel will discuss the national issues and California’s role in the dialogue regarding proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, to pass stricter laws to buy and license guns and ammunition, to require gun vendors to do background checks on potential owners, and report sales so law enforcement can track guns and their owners,” the club says.

Tickets cost $20 for the general public or $12 for club members and are free for students with valid ID, but the club is offering a special deal in which anyone can get tickets at the member price: Just use the coupon ID “specialforguns” when ordering online.

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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.

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Backers say insurance ballot measure will qualify

Advocates of the “2012 Automobile Insurance Discount Act” ballot measure funded by Mercury Insurance Chairman George Joseph say they’ve gathered and are about to submit more than 800,000 signatures they gathered in 10 weeks to qualify the initiative.

This is well short of their Jan. 9 deadline to gather at least 504,760 signatures.

“This was an easier effort than expected,” Mike D’Arelli, executive director of the American Agents Alliance, said in a news release. “People understand that this discount is good for consumers. The fact that this discount is already allowed in most other states, and allows Californians to shop their insurance loyalty discount with other companies for the best prices, appeals to voters.”

The alliance, which is sponsoring the measure, acknowledges it’s similar to the Mercury-funded Proposition 17, which voters rejected last year, but with some “significant improvements to be inclusive and to reach those who do not have insurance.”

Current law only allows insurance companies to offer consumers a continuous coverage discount, for maintaining automobile insurance if the consumer stays with the same company. This proposal will allow consumers control of the discount so they can take that discount with them to shop for a better price with other companies.

This time, they say, military personnel receive the discount; people who’ve lost their job for a period of up to 18 months also qualify for the discount, as do those who lapse coverage for 90 days for any reason; children living with a parent will receive the same discount available to their parent; and consumers will get a discount for each year they were insured in the previous five years (e.g.. if you had four years of insurance you will get 80 percent of the discount).

“The present system is broken,” D’Arelli said. “It is ridiculous that the consumer loses the discount they have earned if they go to a new insurance company. We strongly believe that allowing the consumers to control their discount will create a more competitive and cost effective insurance market.”

Consumer Watchdog is dead set against the measure, saying it would repeal the voter-approved Proposition 103’s ban on considering a driver’s insurance coverage history when setting rates and premiums, thus letting insurers start surcharging customers. The group estimates those surcharges would increase premiums by as much as 40 percent or more for millions of Californians.

Mercury Insurance had spent more than $15.9 million on its unsuccessful attempt to pass Proposition 17 last year. Now its chairman has spent more than $8.2 million out of his own pocket to back this new measure.

“Mercury is using the resources and influence of its billionaire chairman to buy its way onto anther ballot, hoping to fool the voters of California,” consumer advocate Brian Stedge said earlier this month. “This measure is an abuse of our ballot initiative process by a single corporation that refuses to play by the rules.”

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Auto insurance ballot measure revs up

The Secretary of State’s campaign finance database shows insurance giant Mercury General Corp. on Friday put $1 million into Californians for Fair Auto Insurance Rates, the campaign committee it set up to back “The Continuous Coverage Auto Insurance Discount Act” for next year’s ballot. This doubles the company’s total previous contributions, made in June and September.

Today, the committee announced the state Attorney General’s office has released the measure’s title and summary, and gathering of petition signatures has begun; it needs 433,971 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, so the committee will seek about 700,000.

Current law lets insurance companies offer a discount to their customers who maintain “continuous” coverage, but drivers can’t take their continuous coverage discount with them if they change insurance carriers. The proposed ballot measure would change this so the discount is portable even if motorists change insurance companies, something most other states already allow.

The official title and summary:

ALLOWS AUTO INSURANCE COMPANIES TO BASE THEIR PRICES IN PART ON A DRIVER’S HISTORY OF INSURANCE COVERAGE. INITIATIVE STATUTE. Changes current law to permit insurance companies to offer a discount to drivers who have continuously maintained their auto insurance coverage, even if they change their insurance company, and notwithstanding the ban on using the absence of prior insurance for purposes of pricing. Establishes that lapses in coverage due to nonpayment of premiums may prevent a driver from qualifying for the discount. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: This measure would probably have no significant fiscal effect on state and local governments.

“The continuous coverage discount will benefit all drivers who follow the law and maintain insurance coverage. This simple reform will provide lower rates for more California drivers by encouraging competition and will provide them with more options and choices in their insurance coverage,” campaign committee co-chair Jim Conran of Orinda, president of Consumers First and former director of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, said in a news release today. “It encourages California drivers to not only keep their coverage current, but to go out and find the best rate without being forced to lose a discount. Consumers should not be penalized and lose discounts for maintaining coverage just because they change their insurance company.”

UPDATE @ 6:15 P.M.: Consumer Watchdog executive director Doug Heller says Mercury does not have your best interests at heart in pushing this ballot measure.

He says the initiative is a repackaging of Mercury-sponsored legislation invalidated by a state appeals court in 2005 after the court determined the bill would illegally surcharge drivers who had a lapse in coverage; the court’s ruling explained that an alleged discount given to drivers who have had continuous insurance coverage must be offset by a surcharge on people with a lapse in their coverage.

So this initiative, Heller says, would let insurers penalize people who’ve missed just one payment, or who decided not to drive for a time and let their insurance lapse during that time.

“Mercury is using the initiative process to raise rates on struggling families in the middle of an economic crisis,” he said in a news release. “Auto insurers shouldn’t be allowed to jack up your premium because you stop driving for a time, missed one payment or are simply struggling after losing a job.”

As more and more people let their insurance lapse during this economic crisis, Mercury’s proposed to penalize those who’ve stopped and then want to restart coverage will force many drivers to remain uninsured, Heller says, thus raising the cost of uninsured motorist coverage for everyone else and leaving California’s roads less safe.