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Willie Brown’s Minimum Coverage Auto Insurance Bill Is Approved by Assembly

Times Staff Writer

The Assembly on Thursday passed an auto insurance bill sponsored by Speaker Willie Brown that he said would provide affordable, minimum coverage for the poor and lower rates for most other drivers.

But the bill’s opponents branded the measure an unworkable ploy designed by Brown and the trial lawyers lobby to prevent enactment of a no-fault insurance system in California.

“This is the best, most practical opportunity for offering Californians affordable insurance,” Brown (D-San Francisco) told his Assembly colleagues before they passed the bill on a 41-24 vote, the bare majority needed to move the measure to the Senate.

Brown said his bill would save insurance companies hundreds of millions of dollars a year that the firms could then use to subsidize the low-cost policies for low-income drivers.

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Stricter Enforcement

The savings, Brown said, would come from stricter enforcement of the state’s mandatory insurance law, improved vehicle safety and a system of binding arbitration to cut court costs.

The bill would require drivers to show proof of insurance coverage when they register their cars and would mandate biennial safety inspections. The measure would also allow police officers to pull over and ticket drivers not wearing seat belts, instead of issuing such tickets only when drivers are also cited for a moving violation.

Low-income drivers--with incomes of $18,300 or less for a family of four--would be offered a choice of two policies. Both would provide the minimum coverage required by California law.

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One policy would cost $220 a year and offer drivers liability coverage of $15,000 per person, or a $30,000 maximum, to cover the costs of injuries caused by their negligence. These drivers could not be sued for damage they cause to other motorists’ cars.

The second policy would cost $180 a year and provide “no-fault” coverage for medical bills and lost wages up to a total of $15,000 per person, which would be paid by the driver’s own insurance company without regard to who caused the accident. Drivers who opted for this policy would forfeit the right to sue for medical damages in most cases but still could be sued by others.

Brown’s proposal is a hybrid created when he merged his bill with part of a competing measure in order to win passage of his bill and block the rival measure in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee last week.

The Speaker held a closed-door meeting of the Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee before the panel considered the two rival bills last week and reportedly lobbied members heavily to support his bill and shelve the measure by Assemblyman Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton). Then, when a Johnston staff member wrote a partly critical, 15-page analysis of the bill to be used on the Assembly floor, it was discarded and replaced with a four-page study that offered a more neutral, general review.

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Detailed Analysis

Bill George, the Assembly staffer who discarded the detailed analysis, said the longer review was not used because the Assembly was considering more than 200 bills at the time and he wanted to keep each analysis as short as possible.

“I didn’t squelch it,” George said.

But Brown’s critics continue to insist that his bill is no more than a diversion and that it will never be enacted.

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“I don’t think Willie is serious about trying to get the bill signed,” Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier) said. “I think what he really wants to do is give those Democrats who are under pressure something they can vote for so they don’t have to go back to their constituents without delivering something.”


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