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Insurance bill to bring RINOs to forefront

So Republican state Rep. Kirk Talbot’s HB 372 cruises out of the Louisiana House of Representatives, both in committee and on the floor in largely party-line votes carried by Republicans. Next it heads to the Senate Insurance Committee and then would go to the full Senate, with both the panel and chamber having solid GOP majorities. Slam dunk to get to Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards and put the former trial lawyer on the hot seat?

Think again. The bill, which lowers jury thresholds from $50,000 – the nation’s highest – to $5,000, prohibits suing insurance companies to tap directly into their deep pockets, and would provide incentives to lower rates in additional ways, would reduce the flow of ratepayer dollars to trial lawyers. And the Senate committee, despite having seven Republicans of its nine members, might end up as a stumbling block.

Trial lawyer dollars act as Democrats’ campaign funding lifeblood, so only a few of them will cross the aisle to favor such a measure (as the House vote on the bill demonstrated). Thus, Republicans must keep their defections to a minimum while not counting on the two Democrats (also lawyers, but not active in tort litigation).

However, two GOP members – state Sens. Ryan Gatti and Rick Ward – practice in law firms that handle personal injury claims. Gatti almost certainly will defect, as he is an ally of his former law school pal and campaign assistant Edwards.

This gives the bill just a minimum 5-4 majority. That makes Chairman Blade Morrish the swing vote. He has no connection to the trial lawyer lobby, but he has shilled for Edwards on education issues. If he lapses into that mode, this sinks the bill.

The bill’s chances appear brighter if it can make it out to the Senate floor, but still doesn’t contain much margin for error. Assuming Gatti and Ward vote against in committee and Morrish doesn’t, GOP trial lawyer state Sen. Dan Claitor very well could defect, and Edwards Republican allies state Sen. Danny Martiny (another lawyer) and Sen. Pres. John Alario could join him. That leaves a bare majority to send it to Edwards’ desk.

That outcome Edwards decidedly doesn’t want, as it stops the gravy train of some of his biggest campaign supporters. Bill opponents allege supposed victims of accidents will receive short shrift by having more cases go to juries (or alternatively, lower their claims to avoid a jury trial) where expenses go up as do incentives to settle at lower figures, but 36 states have no threshold and the next highest is $15,000, yet the world hasn’t stopped turning for those who suffer accidents outside of Louisiana.

The higher threshold only encourages judge shopping and suits (twice as likely in Louisiana as in the typical state) and attorney insertion into the process, where lawyers can rake off money needlessly in many cases resolvable through far less costly means. Thus, the second highest vehicle insurance rates in the country almost certainly would go down considerably with the bill’s enactment, as more efficient means of fair dispute resolution would kick in.

If the bill comes to Edwards, his veto would make for a ready-made campaign issue against him. Therefore, he desperately hopes to cut the bill off before it reaches him, so he will depend heavily on the likes of Gatti and others to do his dirty work for him.

(NOTE: In fact, today instead of Insurance, Alario sent the bill to Judiciary A. This is possible because of the open-ended jurisdiction of the A, B, and C committees, which are identical but have different composition of members designed to pass or sink certain bills.

And A has a lineup that can sink this bill. It has all of Gatti, Martiny, and Ward. With only one sure vote for it, state Sen. Jack Donahue, out of seven, that could allow the likes of Gatti and Ward to cast show votes in favor, as Martiny is term-limited while the other two have reelections to worry about.)

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