Thanks, Lansing: Billboards mock high auto insurance rates

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
New Detroit billboards push auto insurance reforms.

A series of new billboards in Detroit aim to jump start stalled auto insurance reform talks in the Michigan Legislature by sarcastically thanking lawmakers for sky-high rates.

“Thanks, Lansing!” declare the advertisements, which promote a “driver’s choice” auto insurance reform plan similar to the one backed last fall by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. The legislation was rejected in the Republican-led House amid opposition from most Democrats.

An advertisement at Adelaide and Gratiot near Detroit’s Eastern Market features a resident complaining his car insurance costs more than his car payments. Another compares rates in Chicago and Detroit, routinely cited as one of the most expensive cities in the nation for auto insurance.

The billboards are paid for by Detroiters for Change, a non-profit that is not required to disclose donors and has ties to online ads that ran last fall promoting the legislation backed by Duggan, a Democrat, and House Speaker Tom Leonard, a DeWitt Republican.

Motorists should have the option to buy cheaper, limited-coverage auto insurance policies, the group argues on its website. Michigan’s unique no-fault auto law requires plans to include unlimited lifetime medical coverage for catastrophic auto accident victims.

“The billboards speak for themselves,” said Detroit political consultant Mario Morrow Sr., who is leading the Detroiters for Change ad campaign. “Insurance rates are out of control. Lansing has not acted, and Lansing needs to act. That’s the point we’re trying to drive home.”

Morrow said Monday he has not personally discussed the billboards with Duggan but “would love to have the mayor’s support.” And he has it, Detroit chief operations officer Dave Massaron said Tuesday.

“The mayor supports the message the billboards are sending to Lansing that people all over Michigan are paying outrageous amounts for auto insurance and it’s up to our legislators to fix it,” Massaron said in a statement to The Detroit News. “We are open to speaking with them at any time to move the issue forward in the Legislature, whether it’s later this year or early next year.”

State incorporation records show Detroiters for Change was originally known as Reform Auto No-Fault Now, which sponsored online ads last fall urging lawmakers to support the Duggan-backed reform plan. The group formally changed its name in early April.

‘Desperate’ blame game

State Rep. Fred Durhall III, who is now campaigning for a state Senate seat, called the billboards a “desperate and backdoor” attempt to blame Detroit Democrats for the failed House bills that were rejected in a 45-63 November vote.

“Remember, there were 20 Republicans who voted against this as well,” Durhal said. “It’s sad to see this political ploy.”

Duggan, who won re-election five days after the House rejection, reportedly vowed to campaign against Detroit lawmakers who voted against the auto insurance legislation, according to Crain's.

Morrow is the public face of the group paying for the new billboards, but that doesn’t mean he is the one “pulling the strings,” said Durhal, who stopped short of directly accusing Duggan of orchestrating the ads.

“At the end of the day, some people pull out their best ventriloquist efforts,” Durhal said. “I just think it’s sour grapes.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say Michigan auto insurance rates are too high and the status quo is not working. But they have failed to agree on a solution amid intense fights involving powerful insurance and hospital lobbies.

A state Senate committee is scheduled to take up a separate no-fault auto insurance package Wednesday that would allow residents over the age of 65 who qualify for Medicare to select lower-coverage plans, create a fraud prevention authority and establish a new system for electronic insurance verification.

Durhal said Duggan’s plan last November did not do enough to limit insurance companies that “jack the rates up” and allegedly use non-driving factors like zip codes to determine motorist rates.

He backed a separate package endorsed by the Coalition Protecting Auto No-Fault, which includes medical and consumer groups, and said voters he talks to understand why he voted against the Duggan plan.

“They don’t want to be second-rate citizens,” Durhal said. “They don’t want to have second-rate insurance, and they don’t want to risk benefits based on something that wouldn’t even provide much cost reduction. Choice is not the same as capitulation.”

Billboards ‘all over’ region

Morrow did not have an exact count on the number of billboards that Detroiters for Change is sponsoring, but he said the ads are up “all over” Metro Detroit. They’re located in areas designed to target citizens, not specific lawmakers, he said.

“People are taking notice,” Morrow said. “It’s shaking some folks up, and especially some folks who haven’t done anything about it in Lansing. They seem to be taking offense.”

In addition to allowing motorists to choose plans with capped medical coverage, a plan outlined on the Detroiters for Change website would prohibit insurers from using a motorists credit score to set rates, a departure from the package Duggan backed last fall. It would also establish set rates that hospitals could charge car accident victims.

The Duggan plan sought to force premium reductions for at least five years by requiring insurers to file rates that “reflect savings expected” from the legislation. The House Fiscal Agency projected it would increase Medicaid spending because some accident victims who met coverage caps would be forced onto the government-run health care plan.

The new billboards are a form of “rabble rousing” that discount lawmakers who have worked to find consensus amid decades of acrimony, said Tom Constand, president of the Michigan Brain Injury Association and member of the Coalition Protecting Auto No-Fault board.

Opposing sides are closer to agreement than they were in recent years, said Constand, who compared no-fault auto reform efforts to climbing Mount Everest.

“We’re about 100 feet from the summit, and this is where the air gets thin and you start losing your Sherpas,” he said.

The Coalition Protecting Auto No-Fault opposes medical coverage caps but supports a fraud authority, some form of hospital fee schedule and a prohibition on using non-driving factors to determine rates.

Who’s funding billboards?

Detroiters for Change is a 501c4 non-profit and “will file all reports are required under the law,” Morrow said.

But such “social welfare organizations” do not have to disclose donors, and state law does not require the group to report the ad spending because its billboards do not urge voting for or against any candidate. 

“We’re proud to be supported by drivers across the Metro Detroit area as well as the citizens around the entire state who want lower car insurance rates,” Morrow said. “It shouldn’t cost more to insure a car in Grosse Pointe than it does in Gary, Indiana, after all.”

It’s not clear whether the Michigan House will attempt to take up any no-fault auto insurance reform legislation again this year. Lawmakers are expected to break for summer recess later this month, and the Senate could consider its own bills in coming days.

Duggan and Leonard “speak often,” said House Republican spokesman Gideon D’Assandro, but he declined to discuss those conversations and whether they have included plans to push auto insurance reforms again this term, which ends in late December.

“If some of the members that worked against it… had a change of heart, that’s a possibility,” D’Assandro said. Some lawmakers opposed the measure “out of politics and not because of policy," he argued.