housecoverage.060517   308.jpg

Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, answers questions about SB-95, by Sen. Dan Morrish, R-Jennings, before final passage during House action Sunday.

A sweeping proposal to change Louisiana’s legal system to drive down costs for auto insurers, a measure proponents say would reduce auto insurance rates, was approved by the Louisiana House of Representatives Tuesday night after a lengthy debate over why the state’s auto rates are so high and how to best address them.

State Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, said his bill would make the state’s auto insurance market more competitive and require auto insurers to pass their cost savings from the bill to consumers.

Louisiana has some of the nation’s highest auto insurance rates, ranking second-highest in the country this year, according to Talbot.

“The only guarantee is if we don’t do anything this time next year we’ll be No. 1 instead of number two,” he said.

The House voted 69-30 Tuesday to approve the legislation. 

Businesses and insurance companies back the measure, House Bill 372, and say it will lessen costs for insurance companies.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry loomed large over the debate Tuesday, with several lawmakers pointing to the organization while offering their support of the bill. Stephen Waguespack, the head of LABI, recently pegged Talbot’s bill as the “most important bill of the Legislative session.”

Critics say the bill dramatically restricts car crash victims’ access to the courts. Lawyers who represent plaintiffs have argued the measure ignores more important reasons for high auto insurance premiums, and state trial judges say the changes will clog the courts.

Opponents in the House criticized HB372 as being friendly to insurers without helping consumers, and questioned whether it would really drive down rates.

“Isn’t this bill really about politics?” asked state Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville. “I’m beginning to believe it is, Rep. Talbot.”

The measure, called the “Omnibus Premium Reduction Act of 2019,” would increase the time that victims of crashes have to file a lawsuit from one year to two and reduce the jury trial threshold from $50,000 to $5,000, among other things. The jury threshold change would make it more costly and time-consuming to sue insurance companies in most cases, something Talbot said would incentivize quicker settlements, but which critics said would force consumers to take less money to settle.

Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon has in recent months pointed to several factors that have driven Louisiana’s car insurance rates to among the highest in the nation. Rates have risen largely because of an increase in distracted driving, cheap gasoline prices encouraging more drivers to get on the road and increasingly expensive repairs that have driven up costs, Donelon has said.

The commissioner, who is running for re-election, has also suggested Louisiana’s auto insurance market is stabilizing, mainly because the state’s largest insurer, State Farm, has cut rates multiple times over the past year. State Farm covers about a million people, or one-third of the state’s policyholders.

Donelon has pursued legislation like Talbot’s for years, and at least three similar efforts have failed.

Talbot has said language in the bill would require insurance companies to lower premiums if costs go down.

Voting for HB372 (69): Speaker Barras and Reps Abraham, Abramson, Amedee, Anders, Bacala, Bagley, Berthelot, Billiot, Bishop, Bourriaque, Brass, C. Brown, T. Brown, Carmody, S. Carter, Chaney, Connick, Coussan, Crews, Davis, DuBuisson, Dwight, Edmonds, Emerson, Falconer, Foil, Garofalo, Gisclair, Glover, Guinn, L. Harris, Henry, Hodges, Hoffmann, Hollis, Horton, Howard, Huval, Ivey, M. Johnson, LaCombe, N. Landry, Leopold, Mack, Magee, McFarland, McMahen, Miguez, G. Miller, Jay Morris, Jim Morris, Moss, Muscarello, Pearson, Pope, Pugh, Richard, Schexnayder, Seabaugh, Simon, Stagni, Stokes, Talbot, Thomas, Turner, White, Wright and Zeringue.

Voting against HB372 (30): Reps Armes, Bagneris, Bouie, Carpenter, G. Carter, Cox, Duplessis, Franklin, Gaines, J. Harris, Hill, Jackson, James, Jefferson, Jenkins, R. Johnson, Jones, Jordan, T. Landry, Larvadain, LeBas, Leger, Lyons, Marcelle, Marino, D. Miller, Moore, Norton, Pierre and Smith.

Not Voting (6): Reps Adams, R. Carter, DeVillier, Hilferty, Pylant and Stefanski.

Acadiana Business Today: Grocery store to open in downtown Lafayette this fall; The cost and benefit Youngsville finds in waiving permit fees for business owners

Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.