The easiest thing to say in the world right now is that some US states are suffering more than others in the recession. The national media rightly focus on the headline figures showing the total numbers of unemployed, the foreclosure rate, and so on. This can be somewhat deceiving because it hides the fact that some states are actually turning in statistics very different from the national average. In Michigan, for example, the unemployment rate stands at 15.3%.
The government estimates that, by the end of 2009, some 310,000 jobs will have disappeared with no sign of any consistent move for businesses to begin rehiring. That’s why Michigan has sponsored a tax rebate for small businesses – the majority having been unprofitable for the last year – and is extending a tax credit to home buyers to help meet their mortgage obligations – Michigan is ranked 8th in the national foreclosure rank. Not surprisingly, Michigan is facing a budget deficit right now and, with the cost of the tax rebate and credits extending into 2010, the deficit can only grow worse.
So if a state has taken on major new commitments at a time when its tax revenues are falling, it is interesting to see it also championing new provisions that might help families struggling to make ends meet at the expense of the profits of the insurance industry. This is carrying the idea of redistribution somewhat further than Barack Obama intended during his presidential campaign. He was only talking about using taxes on rich individuals to reduce the wealth gap. This is more bold. Going back to the beginning, everyone with a vehicle on the road will tell you their insurance premiums have been rising during the recession. The Consumer Price Index may have been falling, but many now see the cost of insurance as one of the biggest headaches when it comes to the family budget.
So, this November sees the state election panel accepting a ballot proposal for 2010 to cut car insurance rates by a flat 20% and to protect the consumer against a range of unfair practices. If the backers can collect 300,000 signatures, the proposal will appear on the ballot next year. Should a sufficient number of voter support the proposal, the law would be changed. In theory, it will stimulate competition between the insurance companies licensed to sell policies into Michigan and advance the interests of consumers by encouraging affordable policies for everyone.
Needless to say, the insurance industry is shocked and awed by this proposal, insisting such a change in the law would force them out of business. To many experts, this claim seems somewhat exaggerated. The insurance industry declared hundreds of millions of dollars in profit during 2008 and paid good dividends to their stockholders. Just one company, State Farm, declared profits of $5 billion. So the notion they would all become insolvent overnight is less than convincing. Voters in Michigan will say whether this change is the law is desirable. If the vote is affirmative, the legislature will move to cut industry profits. One indicator to watch will be the car insurance quotes. If these keep on rising leading up to the vote, the people may be encouraged to promote their own interests. But if the industry moderates its pricing policies up to the vote. . . Well, let’s just say the politics will be interesting.