Proposition 33 Auto Insurance Changes: George Joseph’s Record Under Fire

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The guy behind Proposition 33, insurance magnate George Joseph, has spent nearly $17 million to fight for the right to extend discounts to drivers who've had five years of uninterrupted coverage, even if that coverage has come from more than one company.

Joseph has said that he's pushing the measure because he believes it would lead to more competition — which would be good for consumers. But critics say the self-made billionaire has profit on his mind, and that such "discounts" are a sneaky way to ensure rates will rise for young, and poor, drivers.

Their best argument may be Joseph's own legacy.

The 91-year-old Joseph has an inspiring story — he founded Mercury Insurance after fighting in World War II and attending Harvard on the GI Bill. But consumer groups point to a darker side of that story: The California Department of Insurance, in 2006, accused Mercury of having "a lengthy history of serious misconduct."

(Coincidentally, Joseph stepped down as CEO soon after that, although he continues to serve as Mercury's Chairman.)

According to a 2006 motion from the California Department of Insurance, "Mercury has a deserved reputation for abusing its customers and intentionally violating the law with arrogance and indifference."

Among consumer advocates, they also have a reputation for fighting against consumer protections.

In 1988, California voters passed Proposition 103 to reform the auto insurance industry. At the time, auto insurance had become mandatory, but many drivers found they couldn't afford it, even though they had good driving records. They were being charged exorbitant rates because of where they lived, say, or that they had a limited history of insurance, says Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate at the organization Consumer Watchdog.

Prop 103 declared that insurers couldn't price their coverage based on a driver's history of insurance — or lack thereof, Balber says. Good driver discounts were allowed, but not those that penalized drivers who were newbies, or had to take a few years off from owning a car for economic reasons.

Joseph and Co. have fought that ever since. Balber describes a long history of efforts: trying to get regulators to ease up on enforcement. Illegally charging drivers in spite of the law — until finally the courts intervened. Lobbying the Legislature, only to (first) get vetoed by Governor Gray Davis, and (second) have the resulting law struck down by the courts. And finally, Prop. 17, a similar proposition that voters narrowly rejected two years ago.

"This ballot measure is just the latest in a long history of efforts fo roll back consumer protections and discriminate against drivers in California," Balber says.

Groups fighting Prop 33 have helpfully compiled a dossier of "10 Reasons Not to Trust Mercury Insurance's Billionaire Chairman."

"They claim this is to protect consumers, but every major consumer advocacy group in the state is opposed," says Balber.

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