Newsdesk: What a Landmark Auto Insurance Bill Means For Michigan Drivers

Plus, a digest of headlines to keep up with this month
auto insurance
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during her 2018 campaign tour. // Photograph courtesy of Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign

Throughout her campaign for governor, Gretchen Whitmer touted an earnest willingness to work across the political aisle. It’s the sort of rhetoric voters are used to hearing from candidates, which is why the fact that Whitmer and Republican leaders in the Legislature blitzed through a sweeping, historic auto insurance rate reform law in late May felt so pleasantly disorienting to so many.

This thing didn’t just pass. It drew overwhelming support of both parties in the Senate and the House — and therefore proved that the much-mocked optimism and comity that accompanied the first few weeks of the Whitmer administration might actually be sincere. “In contrast to the dysfunction in national politics, today we are delivering results,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Clarksdale Republican, tweeted on May 23.

There’s much for both sides to like — and dislike — in the new law, which ends the state’s mandatory no-fault auto insurance with its unlimited lifetime medical benefits for anyone who has been injured in car crashes. Those unique-to-Michigan requirements are blamed for the state’s highest-in-the-nation car insurance rates. The law is designed to reverse that trend.

When the new system kicks in on July 1, 2020, most drivers will choose unlimited, $500,000 or $250,000 personal injury protection policies. People on Medicaid could cap their policies at $50,000, and Medicare recipients or those with health insurance plans that cover collision injuries can opt out altogether. If their insurance doesn’t fully cover an injured person’s medical costs, they can then sue an at-fault motorist for the difference.

To secure these changes, though, Republicans supported new regulations barring auto insurers from using non-driving factors, such as gender, marital status, home ownership, education level, occupation, credit score, or ZIP code, in setting rates. Democrats cheered this as an effort to prevent discriminatory practices that have made rates in the city of Detroit especially stratospheric. State Rep. Isaac Robinson, who represents central Detroit and Hamtramck, was nonetheless troubled that the law still lets insurers assess rates by territory. “It might make Gov. Whitmer a one-term governor because the people of Detroit trust her and we’ve been sold out,” he told the MIRS Monday podcast.

Other staunch liberals viewed the governor’s willingness to anger some supporters as well as lobbying groups representing trial lawyers, the insurance industry, and hospitals, as a display of political courage. “Whitmer achieved what previous governors couldn’t for decades on auto insurance reform — even [former Gov. Rick] Snyder, who boasted strong GOP legislative majorities for all eight years in office,” wrote Susan Demas, editor of the Michigan Advance.

There remain many contentious issues that are unlikely to forge this sort of Whitmer-GOP alliance, from redistricting to abortion rights. But the way this unfolded — with some fiery
partisan rhetoric in public that belied productive negotiation in private — suggests Lansing’s new political reality is, for the first time in memory, completely unpredictable.

In Other News…

New Michigan State University president takes over

A search committee has picked Samuel Stanley Jr., a medical doctor who previously was president at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, as the university’s new leader. In the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal and then a bruising interim tenure that may well taint the legacy of former Gov. John Engler, the board went outside MSU for a president for the first time in 34 years.

Waiting on SCOTUS for redistricting

At press time, the nation’s highest court is expected to rule in cases out of Maryland and North Carolina that may clarify what unconstitutional gerrymandering is. That may also determine whether Michigan really must redraw its districts in time for the 2020 election as a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in April.

Indicted Rep. Larry Inman on the outs

The GOP state rep from Traverse City is under federal indictment over allegations he sold his vote on a prevailing wage repeal measure. He denies it, but the GOP caucus has disowned him and begged him to quit. He vows to stick around, claiming that the charges are a union plot to oust him.

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Steve Friess is news and features editor at Hour Detroit and a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess landed a Knight-Wallace Fellowship for mid-career journalists at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at sfriess@hour-media.com.