Michigan lawmakers set rare Friday session for possible auto insurance reform vote

Nearly two dozen bills addressing criminal justice reform are headed to the desk of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Lansing — The Michigan Legislature will convene for a rare Friday morning session as Republican leaders near a deal with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on a sweeping plan to reform the state’s no-fault auto insurance law.

The unusual 8 a.m. meeting would allow lawmakers to vote on a proposal before leaving town for Memorial Day weekend if Whitmer and legislative leaders iron out final terms in an attempt to cut rates that routinely rank among the highest in the nation.

A tentative House agenda for Friday’s session indicates a planned vote on an auto insurance reform bill that previously passed the Senate, although significant changes are expected.

Speculation buzzed across the Capitol Thursday evening after the House and Senate adjourned.

“I hear the same thing everybody else hears: I hear that a deal has been cut, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of details yet,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing.

Whitmer, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield met multiple times Thursday, and staffers were expected to continue talks through the evening. The Legislative Services Bureau was put on standby to draft potential bill language ahead of the Friday session.

But key officials were saying little about the parameters of the potential deal or how close they were to a final agreement. 

"We're making progress," said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Shirkey, R-Clarklake. She described "continuing momentum" in the talks. 

Shirkey took Senate Republicans into a lengthy Thursday evening closed-door meeting before adjourning. "We're still talking," Shirkey told The Detroit News as he entered the caucus meeting. 

Chatfield, R-Levering, held four caucus meetings with House Republicans on Thursday afternoon before adjourning. His spokesman Gideon D'Assandro wouldn't comment on the reason for the Friday session, but said more information may be released Thursday night. 

Whitmer spokesman Tiffany Brown told The News that "talks are progressing" but declined to confirm whether a deal had been reached. 

Whitmer two weeks ago vowed to veto auto insurance reform plans approved separately by the House and Senate, suggesting significant changes would be needed to win her support. Most Democrats had voted against the initial Republican plans. 

“Our input's certainly been taken in, but the governor’s certainly the lead on negotiations,” Hertel said. “We’ve certainly had input in the process, and we’ve given our priorities throughout, and I respect the governor’s ability to negotiate on behalf of the Michigan people and for our caucus.”

Bipartisan negotiations picked up last weekend after Whitmer signaled she would be open to giving motorists some choice to buy auto insurance policies with reduced medical coverage, which Republicans contend is the predominate cost driver for sky-high Michigan rates.

The first-term Democrat said a $250,000 medical option is “worth consideration” but made clear she would veto any plan that allows for a full-opt out by motorists with their own health insurance.

Michigan law currently requires motorists to purchase plans with uncapped lifetime medical benefits for injured motorists, which defenders say guarantees the best care of its kind in the country.

Whitmer and lawmakers have also been debating the parameters of a fee schedule capping the amount medical providers can charge insurers, rate reduction mandates for insurers and potential prohibition on the use of non-driving factors to set rates.

The Coalition Protecting Auto No-Fault, which includes trial attorneys, medical and consumer advocacy groups urged Whitmer and state lawmakers to “stay the course” and ensure the final plan includes adequate protections for motorists catastrophically injured in car crashes.

The group has opposed efforts to end lifetime medical coverage guarantees.

“Any reform deal must include strong consumer protections, guaranteed rate relief, and an end to the auto insurance industry’s practice of discrimination based on non-driving rating factors,” CPAN President John Cornack said in a statement.