Rubin: Changing no-fault with no guts
Sure, the campaign to undercut no-fault insurance is misguided and venal. But let's not overlook the fact that it's also slimy.
As written, the package of bills that zipped merrily through the Michigan Senate and the House Insurance Committee would be immune from review by voters, no matter how many of us don't want to tamper with the care of horrifically injured people to save $2 a week.
The package comes equipped with an appropriation, which means it can't be challenged in a statewide referendum.
It's a back-door tactic that misapplies the state constitution, shackles Michigan voters, and decidedly annoys former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz — who, for the record, dislikes the attack on catastrophic care at least as much as the heavy-handed and duplicitous way it's being packaged.
"They're using a legislative tool for an utterly inappropriate purpose," says Schwarz, who is also a doctor and a former member of the state Senate. "It calls into question if that tool should exist at all."
To quickly dispense with a civics lesson, the Michigan constitution lets us challenge laws we don't like. It's not an easy process, but as recently as 2012, it worked.
The very same constitution says a law can't be addressed, accosted, contested, impugned, folded, spindled or mutilated if it somehow appropriates money. The idea was to protect budget bills and make sure the state can pay its debts.
Of late, legislators have realized that if they tack an appropriation onto a policy bill, the same rule applies. Sure, the voters are supposed to have a recourse, but they're pesky and they don't have lobbyists, so who needs them?
It might be a cynical attitude, but hey, at least it's hypocritical.
Subverting people's will
Consider the main thrust of the state's argument in court against same-sex marriage: "That's the way our beloved citizens voted."
And consider Proposal 1 on Tuesday's ballot: the same Republican-majority legislators who box us out with appropriations think we're smart enough to make the tough call on road repairs. (Of course, it helps in that case that they were afraid to.)
Susan Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, recalls pre-emptive appropriations since 2011 in bills about redistricting, wolf hunting and right to work.
"They forgot to include one in the emergency manager bill in 2011," she notes, and voters overturned it in 2012. So the legislature rewrote the bill with an appropriation and rammed it through a lame-duck session a few months later.
The tactic had been used before, Demas says, "but in the last couple of legislatures, we've seen it balloon."
Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak, wrote an amendment in 2012 to make every law subject to a referendum except for actual budget bills.
The distinguished elected officials who had been abusing the tactic did not rally to his side, which is to say the proposal flopped like a flounder.
$186 well spent
Now comes a mad rush to alter no-fault insurance with a proposal discussed for all of one day in a Senate committee.
The House revision at least pretends to keep consumers in mind, promising a less-than-whopping $100 reduction in insurance rates for two years. Nobody is pretending to care about the long-term patient of Schwarz's whose collision with a tree left him a 20-year-old quadriplegic.
"I do a double-take sometimes when I pay my auto insurance," Schwarz concedes. But the annual fee of $186 to the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association has allowed his patient to live a decent life — and he could be any of us.
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson is among those who've recently come out against the bills, which essentially cut payments to hospitals and improve the rosy outlook of insurance companies.
In the harsh light of cameras, maybe the legislators will scurry away from the bills they've been so eager to pass with no one looking.
Then again, they'll all be bounced by term limits eventually, and an appropriation means they can't be corrected by the people they supposedly represent.
That's the advantage and the irony of using a loophole in a discussion that involves shattered vertebrae:
It's easy to be spineless.