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NEWS RELEASE
Jan 01, 2003


CONTACT: Doug Heller - 310-392-0522 x309

Senators Pass Mercury Insurance Surcharge Bill 34-1; Insurer Has Contributed Millions to State Politicians

SB 841 (Perata) Is Opposed By Consumer Groups, Low Income Groups and Insurance Commissioner; Bill Vetoed Last Year By Davis
Sacramento -- Legislation that would allow auto insurers to surcharge drivers who have had a lapse in insurance coverage or were previously uninsured was approved by the California Senate today on a vote of 34-1. SB 841 (Perata -- Oakland) is sponsored by Mercury Insurance, which has contributed over $1.2 million to politicians since 2001, including at least $374,700 since last September. A nearly identical bill was vetoed last year by Governor Davis.

The bill, which is opposed by the state's consumer groups and low-income advocates as well as Insurance Commissioner Garamendi, would illegally violate Proposition 103. The voter-approved insurance reform law bars companies from penalizing a driver due to a lack of prior insurance. Mercury Insurance currently faces a California lawsuit for the illegal use of the surcharge that is proposed in the legislation.

"Mercury Insurance is trying to circumvent the governor, the regulator and the courts by throwing money at the legislature," said Doug Heller, a consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights (FTCR). "A bill with this much opposition does not get out of the Senate with only one lone no vote, unless it was greased with campaign cash. We are witnessing chronic corporateering in the Capitol, in which the will of corporate contributors is enacted at the expense of the public interest."

The bill's author, Senator Don Perata, received $25,000 from the company prior to the bill's introduction last year and another $10,000 from Mercury Insurance in September 2002. FTCR noted that the Democratic Party has received the bulk of the contributions from Mercury, amounting to more than $1 million since 2001. Click here to view a detailed timeline of Mercury contributions.

Mercury Seeks to Evade Law, Regulation and Litigation
  1. SB 841 violates California law: The Mercury proposal illegally violates Proposition 103, which makes it illegal to increase a consumer's premium on the basis of their lack of previous insurance. The only legal way to enact this law would be through another voter-approved initiative.
  2. SB 841 dismantles Department of Insurance regulations: Last year, former Insurance Commissioner Harry Low issued rules that Mercury's proposal was illegal and wrote regulations to stop companies from using this discount/surcharge scheme that targets the uninsured.
  3. Mercury is facing a lawsuit for illegally surcharging the poor: A lawsuit against Mercury, which is before a California Court of Appeals, charges Mercury with illegally surcharging drivers without previous insurance. SB 841 would allow Mercury to continue this illegal practice.
Under SB 841, drivers who have to drop insurance coverage for a time because they cannot afford it (for example, due to job loss) will be punished when they purchase auto insurance anew. Additionally, drivers who have never purchased auto insurance will face a higher premium when they buy insurance for the first time. In exchange for the higher rates paid by the typically low-income drivers who have no prior insurance or a lapse in coverage, Mercury would be allowed to offer discounts to insured drivers who leave their company to buy a Mercury policy.

"Why should those who cannot afford continuous coverage be penalized by insurance companies simply because they are poor and auto insurance costs too much? This legislation discriminates against those with small paychecks and big bills who choose not to drive because of financial stresses at certain times in their lives," said Heller.

According to data on file with the Department of Insurance, under the Mercury scheme, a good driver with 22 years driving experience -- but without continuous coverage -- would pay $208 more per year than an equivalent driver who similarly signed up with Mercury but had continuous insurance coverage.

Consumer Groups will sue to invalidate SB 841 if enacted
The legislation would end up costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, if it were enacted. The state would be forced to defend lawsuits that challenge the legality of a bill that amends and violates Proposition 103. In past years the courts have struck down illegal amendments to Proposition 103.

The bill is opposed by:
Consumers Union
Department of Insurance/ Commissioner Garamendi ACORN
National Council for La Raza (NCLR)
Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA)
Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy
JERICHO: A Voice for Justice
Labor/Community Strategy Center (Bus Riders Union)
Californians for Justice Education Fund (CFJ)
Gray Panthers California
Bet Tzedek Legal Services
Strategic Action for a Just Economy (SAJE)
Center for Public Interest Law
San Francisco Tenants Union
Consumer Action
FTCR

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