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Dan Fagan: Governor, lawmakers fail miserably on one of Louisiana’s biggest issues

June 11, 2019
Originally posted on The Advocate

Gov. John Bel Edwards and legislators failed miserably this past session when it comes to solving one of the state’s biggest problems adversely impacting just about everyone — out-of-control auto insurance premiums.

Politicians talk a good game when it comes to helping the little guy, and yet they seem incapable or unwilling to do anything about Louisiana auto insurance premiums that are 56% higher than the rest of the country.

The average premium costs motorists more than $2,000 per year. In Baton Rouge, premiums average more than $3,300, and in New Orleans, they average $4,000.

But as bad as the auto insurance rates are for most motorists, the problem is even more critical for many Louisiana businesses.

“We’re in crisis mode. That’s why it’s frustrating the governor did not get involved at all in something that is so important to our economy,” said state Rep. Kirk Talbot, a Kenner Republican.

Talbot sponsored a bill last session designed to lower auto insurance premiums for motorists and businesses.

“On the commercial side, we are near collapse. There aren’t many insurance companies left that will even give commercial vehicles a quote anymore. We heard testimony from a trucker in north Louisiana that in the 1990s was paying a premium of $5,000 per truck. Now he’s paying $37,000 per truck. So they’re going out of business in Louisiana and instead moving operations to Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi,” said Talbot.

Talbot says high premiums are driving away some of the state’s highest-paying jobs: “If you look at intermodal trucking, what it means for farming, logging, the chemical business, the oil and gas business, manufacturing, all these things. They are all a vital part of our economy and many of them are literally collapsing.”

The House overwhelmingly voted in favor of Talbot’s tort reform bill. Talbot says he’s confident the Senate also would have overwhelmingly passed his legislation if given a chance. Talbot’s bill died in the Senate Judiciary A committee.

“Judiciary A was created to kill tort reform bills and it did its job,” said Talbot. “When you go into a 7-person committee on Senate Judiciary A stacked with plaintiff attorneys, that bill ain’t coming out.”

Senate Judiciary A is chaired by state Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, a trial lawyer. If you’re looking to blame someone for your ridiculously high auto insurance bill, you can start with Ward. State Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, also a trial lawyer, co-chairs the committee. In fact, four of the five other members — state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner; Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City; John Milkovich, D-Shreveport; and Wesley Bishop D-New Orleans — are also lawyers. 

Talbot says Luneau, Gatti, Bishop, and Milkovich voted against his bill. Martiny was absent. Talbot says Ward, as chairman, typically only votes in case of a tie.

You may wonder how so many lawyers got on a committee that’s a gateway for any potential tort reform legislation. That’s what happens when the Senate President, John Alario R-Westwego, is a virtual puppet of the governor. Does the phrase “the fix is in” come to mind?

Lauren Chauvin, director of civil justice reform at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, told me despite inaction on behalf of Edwards and the Legislature, she believes the problem of high insurance rates will eventually be addressed.

“It’s reached a tipping point, Everyone feels this every month. When they pay their bills, they realize something has to change,” said Chauvin. “When you see all these billboard lawyers and the lawyers on TV, and you start to realize they have a lot of money to pay for all that advertising, and that money is coming from somewhere. And we are all paying for it through higher premiums.”

It’s no secret a large percentage of Edwards’ campaign funding comes from trial lawyers. As he runs for reelection, he’ll have to explain why he sided with his lawyer donors instead of the people when it comes to doing something — anything — about Louisiana’s high auto-insurance premiums.

There’s a giant billboard on display as you drive into the New Orleans CBD that reads, “Edwards, people over politics.” Not this time governor. Not this time.