By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (May 17, 2019) — Groups entrenched in the fight over Michigan’s auto insurance laws combined to spend at least $4.5 million in support of current state officeholders over the last five years alone.
Those same officeholders continue to debate what the state’s auto insurance system should look like going forward. They’re facing pressure from a collection of groups with their own financial interests, including companies that sell auto insurance, health-care providers who serve accident victims and attorneys who represent victims in court.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) examined the spending of 18 political action committees (PACs) tied to groups involved in the auto insurance fight: nine PACs tied to either auto insurance companies or groups that have pushed for reforms similar to the ones now advancing in Lansing; and nine PACs that have openly opposed the reforms currently advancing.
MCFN tallied how much money those PACs have spent to support current lawmakers’ campaigns, have contributed to current lawmakers’ personal PACs and have contributed to lawmakers’ caucus committees.
Of the $4.5 million tracked over the last five years, insurance company PACs and groups backing the new bills or past proposals similar to them have spent about $2.7 million to support current lawmakers. Groups opposing the bills have spent about $1.8 million.
The House bill, which received the most recent vote, would do away with Michigan’s unique auto insurance setup that’s based around requiring drivers to have unlimited personal injury protection coverage.
In hopes of lowering the cost of auto insurance across the state, the House bill would allow drivers to choose from four personal injury protection levels: a $50,000 level with $200,000 in coverage for trauma care immediately after an accident; a $250,000 level; a $500,000 level; or an unlimited coverage level.
The bill would also require that insurance companies decrease premium rates for personal injury protection coverage based on the level of coverage drivers choose for the first five years. Groups representing insurance companies have voiced some level of concern about the mandated rate reductions.
The Senate bill, Senate Bill 1, wouldn’t require specific rate reductions but would allow drivers to begin choosing from additional levels of personal injury protection coverage with the belief that those levels would bring lower rates.
The bill would allow drivers to choose $50,000 in personal injury protection with $200,000 in coverage specifically for trauma care immediately after an accident or $250,000 in personal injury protection coverage. The bill would also allow drivers with health insurance that would cover their care if they were injured in an accident to opt out of personal injury protection.
The Senate voted 24-14 in favor of Senate Bill 1, a major auto insurance overhaul, on May 7. The House voted 61-49 for its own overhaul, House Bill 4397, on May 9.
Of the 18 PACs examined for this report, two connected to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce were among the biggest spenders in support of current lawmakers.
The Michigan Chamber, which lobbies on a variety of issues, has spoken out of support of Senate Bill 1. Rich Studley, the chamber’s president and CEO, called it “bold action to drive down Michigan’s highest-in-the-nation car insurance rates.”
The Michigan Chamber’s traditional PAC has made about $703,350 in contributions to current lawmakers’ political accounts over the last five years. The Michigan Chamber’s super PAC, which acts independently of candidates to purchase advertisements to benefit candidates, spent $1.04 million in support of current lawmakers over the last five years.
Nearly half of the super PAC’s fundraising haul in 2018 can be traced back to insurance interests, including the Michigan Insurance Coalition, which gave $410,000, the Auto Club Group, which gave $35,000, and the Insurance Alliance of Michigan, which gave $32,500, according to disclosures.
Other PACs connected to insurance companies or groups that have been pushing for similar auto insurance changes that have been financially supporting current lawmakers over the last five years include the following:
— Michigan Farm Bureau PAC, $370,675 spent in support of current lawmakers;
— Auto Club of Michigan PAC, $208,200 spent in support of current lawmakers;
— Michigan Association of Insurance Agents PAC, $193,025 spent in support of current lawmakers;
— Frankenmuth Insurance PAC, $92,990 spent in support of current lawmakers;
— Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership PAC, the Duggan Leadership Fund, $44,220 spent in support of current lawmakers
— Insurance Alliance of Michigan PAC, $28,175 spent in support of current lawmakers;
— Allstate Insurance PAC, $25,500 spent in support of current lawmakers.
The Michigan Health & Hospital Association has been among the most active groups pushing against auto insurance changes similar to the ones currently advancing in the Legislature. Brian Peters, president and CEO of the hospital association, said in a statement that Senate Bill 1 was a “shocking step backwards.”
“Instead of holding insurers accountable for discriminatory rate setting and lowering rates, Senate Bill 1 limits coverage and asks drivers to simply trust the insurance companies,” Peters said.
The Michigan Health & Hospital Association’s PAC spent about $850,300 in support of current lawmakers over the last five years. The Michigan Association for Justice, an organization that represents lawyers, has also opposed Senate Bill 1. Its PAC spent $749,389 in support of current lawmakers over the last five years.
Other groups on this side of the debate and their spending totals over the last five years include the following:
— Henry Ford Health System PAC, $61,500 spent in support of current lawmakers;
— Friends of Spectrum Health PAC, $58,700 spent in support of current lawmakers;
— Michigan Doctors PAC of the Michigan State Medical Society, $45,000 spent in support of current lawmakers;
— Michigan Deserves Better, a super PAC that supports the current auto no-fault system, $30,000 spent in support of current lawmakers;
— Michigan Orthopaedic Society PAC, $22,400 spent in support of current lawmakers;
— Friends of McLaren PAC, $11,700 spent in support of current lawmakers;
— Michigan Orthotics and Prosthetics Association PAC, $1,000 spent in support of current lawmakers.
Groups interested in the insurance debate have spent more money on campaigns than listed above. Individual company executives’ giving and other individual donors’ giving aren’t included in this analysis. And some of the group’s spending has gone to candidates who’ve lost — those spending totals aren’t included above.
In addition, some of the spending isn’t easy to track.
For instance, Detroiters for Change, a nonprofit organization that was involved in a number of Detroit races for the Michigan House and Senate in 2018, focused its arguments on auto insurance rates but didn’t expressly tell people which candidates to vote for. Because the group avoided the so-called “magic words” of openly endorsing candidates, the group didn’t have to disclose its donors or even its spending levels.
In the weeks before the August 2018 primary election, the group sent out mailers about candidates, funded billboards touting candidates and paid for Facebook ads promoting candidates.
According to Facebook’s political ad archive, Detroiters for Change spent $366,137 on Facebook ads in 2018. However, not all of the ads mentioned candidates.
While some of the group’s candidates lost, four of the candidates it promoted in Facebook ads won seats in the Legislature: Hollier, a Democrat from Detroit; Sen. Sylvia Santana, a Democrat from Detroit; Sen. Marshall Bullock, a Democrat from Detroit; Rep. Karen Whitsett, a Democrat from Detroit.
Hollier, Santana and Whitsett were three of the five Democrats who supported either House Bill 4397 or Senate Bill 1 last week. The others were Rep. Sara Cambensy, a Democrat from Marquette, and Rep. Leslie Love, a Democrat from Detroit. Detroiters for Change promoted Love in at least one round of mailers, according to a mailer obtained by MCFN.
In a statement posted online, Hollier called Senate bIll a “the first step in a process to lower auto insurance rates in Michigan.”
In his 2018 election, Hollier beat a crowded primary field that included former Rep. Brian Branks, a Democrat who had opposed past Republican-backed auto insurance proposals in the House and who had been targeted by Detroiters for Change.
Difficult-to-track spending has happened on both sides of the debate. A super PAC called Michigan Deserves Better works to protect auto no-fault in Michigan.
It has been funded primarily by health-care providers. While it was less active than Detroiters for Change, the super PAC spent money in 2018 on mailers and ads but didn't indicate which races the mailers and ads targeted. At least two mailers obtained by MCFN from the super PAC promoted candidates, including Banks, but didn’t expressly tell recipients to vote for the candidates, which is likely why the group didn’t provide more information in campaign finance disclosures.
In October 2018, the super PAC gave $100,000 to an account tied to the Michigan Democratic Party that could accept corporate contributions and didn’t have to report its activities to the public.