'No fault' and Lansing's fault

For a quick and thorough review of what the issues are in the push to change Michigan's no-fault/unlimited medical coverage system for catastrophic injuries in auto accidents, check out Pat Shellenbarger's piece last week in Bridge.

Pat made two points that have received far little coverage elsewhere, but reflect, I think, the fundamental dysfunction in our state's political system.

No. 1: This is a problem of commission, not omission.

Advocates for changing no-fault have framed the issue by saying Michigan no longer can afford its unique system of no-fault and unlimited medical coverage. Frankly, why should Michigan be the outlier here; what unique insight did Michigan fall into that other states have ignored?

But this ignores the consequences of recent history. As Shellenbarger wrote:

"In the late 1990s, the MCCA had a surplus of $2.5 billion – more than enough to cover catastrophic claims. At the urging of then-Gov. John Engler, the MCCA board in 1998 — an election year — refunded $180 per vehicle to Michigan motorists. The following year, again under pressure from Engler, the MCCA agreed to lower its surplus another $1.2 billion by reducing the amount motorists would pay into the fund over the next five years."

Now, it's reasonable to consider how much of a surplus the MCCA -- a private, not public, body -- should keep as a matter of policy. Predicting the future, which is what you must do to calculate your financial needs to cover the costs imposed by past, present and future auto accidents, is a tad tricky.

But the fact of the matter is that since these rebates, MCCA has been almost exclusively in a deficit situation comparing its assets to its projected liabilities. And its board has been driven to increase the annual fee on consumers (via their auto insurers) to try to stay on top of the situation.

Had the rebates not been issued, or issued in smaller amounts, the auto insurance industry would be pushing change in a much more difficult political environment: MCCA fees would be much lower and they would not be able to show that the MCCA is in deficit. No crisis generally equates to status quo in the political world.

No. 2: The political process in Lansing increasingly operates independent of voter considerations.

Again from Shellenbarger's piece:

"The current legislation changing no-fault includes a $50,000 appropriation. Under the provisions of a controversial 2001 Michigan Supreme Court decision, this amount nullifies voters’ ability to call a referendum on the legislation, should it become law. Opponents say the appropriation was included in the bill to thwart the will of the people.

"Traditionally, appropriations are included in separate bills, but this is the fourth time this year the Republican-controlled Legislature has included an appropriation in a bill in an apparent bid to make it referendum-proof. ...

"But under the state constitution, an initiative requires more petition signatures than a referendum: 8 percent of all votes cast for governor in the last election versus 5 percent for a referendum. That means opponents of changing the no-fault law would need to collect more than 258,000 valid signatures for an initiative, compared with 161,000 for a referendum."

Notice here that you have two political entities (the Supreme Court and the Legislature) that have engineered a situation in which the voters' control of the political process is lessened.

Why would public servants want to do such a thing? Take a gander at what's happening this week in Ohio, where a referendum on a controversial law about public employee unions is on the ballot:

"Triggering a repeal referendum required organizers to collect signatures equal to just 6 percent of the total votes in the last gubernatorial election, with additional requirements that they be sufficiently spread out around the state, with at least three percent of the gubernatorial vote across at least half the counties in the state. That meant the threshold was 231,150 signatures — but organizers fired their opening political salvo by collecting four times as many, thus creating a greater base for the actual campaign."

Why have voters pass judgment on your work if you can engineer a way to avoid it? From the politicians' perspective, it makes perfect sense. From the standpoint of a voter, it doesn't look quite so positive, does it?

If voters do not keep in mind what has been done on their behalf -- AND defend their own prerogatives -- the slide away from representative democracy accelerates. Lansing's principal problem is not partisanship, it's a lack of accountability.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Mon, 11/07/2011 - 1:16pm
You are on to something about accountability. But its more nuanced than that. There seems to be a recent generic (non-partisan -"Lansing") hostility to constituents. And to voter initiatives particularly. Maybe that is why they seem to be making it harder. Contrast the Lansing response to two voter initiatives that Lansing didn't like, promote, or expect to be passed. Both sought to make legal currently illegal activities. The first one found an "older" (and wiser?) Lansing jumping on to what the voters had surprisingly said and quickly passed some fairly comprehensive legislation and built checks and protections into the regulating of the activity. The second one found the more recent Lansing simply ignoring the voters. The activity was left to fly or not on its own. Different, largely inhibiting and negative, responses to the new initiative law were left to local pols, most of whom see ignoring the initiative as a means for publicity. So, rather than having the millions of dollars that the casino business pours into the state (and Detroit) each year, revenue from 'medical' marijuana languishes -- and no direction from Lansing leaves each county prosecutor open season on publicity . Its not like the state couldn't use the money. It really makes one wonder about the leadership in Lansing. And I hate to say that because I think the Gov is generally doing a good job. But it does seem that if its not in his task list he won't deal with it. Medical MJ was an opportunity very much like casino gaming and no one in Lansing seems to want to take the opportunity.
Tue, 11/08/2011 - 9:09am
It's time to call a spade a spade. Why is it that negative things (or perceived negative things) happening in the Michigan legislature are always taged "Lansing?" Lansing is the city the state government is located in - it is not the state legislature. The problems are caused by Michigan senate and house interests. Lansing is a city with loads of problems, and the negative references to the state government are not helping. People come from all over Michigan to Lansing to work at the state offices. Some of them have good intentions, some - not so good. Some are outright carpet-baggers. But these people are not Lansing. They are Michigan! Please STOP dumping on Lansing as if we are the problem in the state. We are not. If the problem is Michigan then call it Michigan!
Bernard Munson
Wed, 11/23/2011 - 11:02am
If the MCCA is a private non-profit organization, why is there a "investment commitee" to invest "monies" that come from all of us that drive cars in Michigan. Let us band together to abolish the MCCA all together. I'm in the process of obtaining the finicial statements of the MCCA from its inception to date. I have a "gut" feeling that I'm going to find something very wrong going on here!