Gilbert may fund 2020 ballot campaign to lower auto insurance rates

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert and his family of companies are standing ready to fund a 2020 ballot campaign to reform the state's auto insurance law to lower rates if the Legislature won't act to correct what they regard as a "fundamental barrier" to success in Michigan.

Dan Gilbert

The Quicken Loans founder's companies say they first will be pushing state lawmakers to solve the issue during the upcoming lame-duck session or in the first half of 2019.

But if they don't see results, the companies are committed to taking a proposal straight to state voters, said Jared Fleisher, vice president of government relations for Quicken Loans.

The state's insurance rates, he said, not only hurt the pocketbooks of Michigan families but limit access to opportunities and are a barrier to people locating here.

"We think it's the single biggest and most solvable barrier to the growth of Detroit," Fleisher said. "Every day that they don't solve this problem is a day too long. The time has come for a solution. It's enough."

Michigan lawmakers have spent years debating various reforms to the state’s no-fault auto insurance law, which is the only one of its kind in the country that requires unlimited lifetime medical benefits for catastrophic injuries.

Fleisher said Wednesday that Gilbert's companies aren't taking sides in the long-running battle.

"We're on Michigan's side. We believe the right solution is a compromise," said Fleisher, adding it will have to include a fair system with structural reforms to bring costs down and give driver's a choice in coverage.

Fleisher said Gilbert "cares deeply about Detroit and Michigan" and the companies are going to press lawmakers hard to come up with a solution. They expect other partners from the business community to join in.

"We expect we will not being singing alone,"  Fleisher said. "There will be a choir."

He didn't specify Wednesday how much funding the companies intend to put toward the effort, saying only: "I don't know of anybody who can look at Mr. Gilbert and say he hasn't invested heavily in what he believes in to get the job done."

No decision has been made yet as to the language of the potential ballot measure.

Mayor Mike Duggan and a group of Metro Detroit residents filed a federal lawsuit in August over Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law, asking the court to give the state six months to come up with a fix for the act they contend is “unconstitutional.”

The Duggan administration on Wednesday declined to comment on Gilbert's potential ballot campaign.

Duggan and state House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, last year backed a reform plan that sought to drive down rates by allowing motorists to choose reduced coverage plans and established a cap on reimbursement rates for medical providers that treat injured motorists.

The plan failed amid opposition from some Republicans and most Democrats, who defended guaranteed benefits in current law and questioned provisions they said could allow insurers to skirt cost-cutting requirements. 

Some Detroit lawmakers complained the legislation did not prohibit “red lining” by insurers who are allowed to charge higher rates based on zip codes and other non-driving factors such as gender, education, marital status or occupation. 

In a statement to The Detroit News on Wednesday, House Republican spokesman Gideon D'Assandro said Leonard's priority is to lower rates for Michigan families "who have been suffering under the most expensive auto insurance rates in the country."

"He supports any real plan to deliver meaningful rate relief, no matter whose idea it is or where it comes from," D'Assandro said. 

The number of petition signatures necessary for a legislative initiative to qualify for the next general election ballot would be eight percent of the total vote for governor, or 338,480 signatures, based on the unofficial results from November.

Detroit drivers pay an average of $6,197 annually for auto insurance coverage — the highest of any city in the nation, and four times higher than the national average, according to Duggan's August lawsuit.

Dearborn drivers, meanwhile, pay an average of $5,135, while the average premium in Southfield is $4,443, and $3,446 in Warren. Roseville drivers pay an average of $3,378, the lawsuit notes, citing the online database ValuePenguin.

A past ballot initiative to reform auto insurance was defeated in the mid-90s. Fleisher said it was pushed at a time when rates were manageable.

"Today, it truly is unsustainable and unacceptable," he said. "It is wrong. When something is wrong, it needs to be made right."