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Lansing — Billionaire Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert is planning a petition drive for auto insurance reform legislation but his team remains "hopeful" that legislative leaders and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this week will hammer out a deal.

A compromise between the Democratic governor and Republican-led Legislature could spare Gilbert the effort and cost of organizing a statewide petition drive, which often take months to complete. 

GOP lawmakers last year adopted new rules making the petition drive process more difficult, and signature requirements increased significantly because of last fall's strong voter turnout. 

Whitmer threatened to veto auto insurance reform bills approved by the House and Senate but is negotiating with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering.

They made “great progress over the weekend," Shirkey said in a Monday radio interview with Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley on the 910AM Superstation.

The looming threat of a Gilbert petition drive puts pressure on Whitmer to hash out an agreement because the state Constitution would allow lawmakers to enact voter-initiated legislation without the governor’s signature, giving her no say in the final law.

GOP leaders had hoped to finalize legislation by the end of last week but held off amid intensifying talks with the governor. Shirkey said it will be a matter of "days, not weeks until we either decide we can reach a deal or we can’t.”

Michigan auto insurance rates are the “single biggest obstacle in the way of retaining and attracting talent” to grow the Detroit and state economies, said Jared Fleischer, Gilbert’s point man and vice president of government affairs for Quicken Loans.

While they are preparing for a possible petition drive, “we are also hopeful and optimistic that ongoing, good-faith negotiations between the governor and Legislature will lead to an agreement that delivers real and significant savings for Michigan drivers,” he said in a statement.

Gilbert and GOP reform advocates want to end Michigan’s unique law that requires motorist to purchase auto insurance with unlimited lifetime medical coverage, which they contend is a primary cost driver for rates that routinely rank among the country's most expensive.

Whitmer signaled Thursday she would consider allowing motorists to purchase policies with $250,000 in personal injury protection but would veto any bill that allows a complete opt-out for drivers who already have health insurance, arguing it would jeopardize care and shift costs to public and private insurers.

The governor is also seeking a tougher rate reduction mandate for auto insurers and wants to prohibit them from using non-driving factors like ZIP code or credit scores to set rates.

No committee formed yet

The Detroit News' weekend report on Gilbert’s planned petition drive drew criticism from some Democratic lawmakers such as state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo of Detroit, who said any plan that mirrors the House or Senate proposals would amount to “an insurance company handout.”

Like Whitmer, Gay-Dagnogo wants to bar insurers from setting rates based on non-driving factors, which she called a form of discrimination that has driven up rates in Detroit.

“Detroiters deserve better than lackluster plans from the legislature or a billionaire at the ballot box,” Gay-Dagnogo said.

But the petition drive plans are nothing new, Fleischer said. Gilbert openly discussed the possibility last year after reform efforts collapsed in the lame-duck Legislature. The state House also rejected a 2017 plan backed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. 

 “We have said all along that we will take the necessary steps to prepare for a ballot initiative only if there is no resolution at the negotiation table,” Fleischer said.

Gilbert's group has not yet filed the required state paperwork to form or raise money for a petition drive committee, said Michigan Secretary of State spokesman Shawn Starkey.

If he does launch a petition drive, Gilbert's team would have 180 days to collect at least 340,047 valid signatures and would be required to be file them by late May of 2020. 

Organizers typically circulate petitions in the summer to maximize good weather for outdoor signature collection. But they usually also ask the Board of State Canvassers to approve the form of petitions in a bid to avoid legal issues that could invalidate collections. 

Successful Michigan ballot drives often cost sponsors more than $1 million and typically take at least half a year to complete using paid circulators.

How long other efforts take

The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which successfully spearheaded pot legalization Proposal 1 in 2018, spent roughly six months collecting signatures and waited another five months for the state to certify them.

The group began circulating petitions in May 2017 and filed in mid-November of that year. The Board of State Canvassers certified signatures in April 2018, sending the measure to lawmakers, who took no action and allowed it to qualify for the November ballot.

Right to Life of Michigan completed the process much quicker in 2013, when it spent about seven months on a successful effort to prohibit health insurers from making abortion coverage a standard feature in policies they sell.

The anti-abortion group began circulating petitions in May 2013, and the Republican-led Legislature approved the measure in December, effectively bypassing a veto threat by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

Signature requirements for initiatives increased 36% this year, rising from 250,288 to 340,047. The threshold is adjusted every four years to match 8% of the total votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. 

Michigan lawmakers last year also made petition drives harder by limiting the number of signatures organizers can collect in any single congressional district, capping the number at 15% of the total.

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel has criticized the petition drive law, saying it "puts a limit on the peoples’ voice." Her office is reviewing the constitutionality of the rule changes, and she is expected this week to issue a formal opinion. 

If Gilbert's team instead launches a petition drive and sends the measure to the Legislature, lawmakers would have 40 days to consider it. They could approve the initiated legislation, which would make it law, or allow it to go to the ballot for voters across the state to decide.

Shirkey said the Legislature would have an “obligation” to review the initiative if the petition drive is successful. 

But an agreement between lawmakers and the governor would be the best option “for everyone” in Michigan, the Senate leader said. “Especially from a timing standpoint. We can’t start saving soon enough.”

House Republicans project their plan could save motorists between $120 and $1,200 on average, depending on the level of personal injury protection they choose to purchase.

But critics contend the proposal would eliminate an important safety net for catastrophically injured motorists, who can rack up massive medical bills and require years of care. 

The Coalition Protecting Auto No-Fault is urging Whitmer to “stand firm” and reject the $250,000 personal injury protection option included in the House plan, arguing it would “devastate lives, kill jobs and raise taxes.”

Talks in Lansing are "ongoing," a Chatfield spokesman said Monday afternoon. 

joosting@detroitnews.com

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