Buying power - Page 7

How PG&E and Mercury Insurance are spending millions to try to trick Californians into voting for corporate interests


"Mercury went crazy because I guess their polling showed that if voters read that it allowed insurance companies to raise your premium, they wouldn't vote for it. So Mercury made a completely cosmetic change to the ballot measure, refiled it, and this time, magically, the title and summary comes back from Jerry Brown's office: 'allows insurance companies to discount your premiums.' Nothing about raising them, nothing about surcharges. It was outrageous," Rosenfield told us when we met with him on Feb. 9.

Consumer Watchdog formally challenged the language and issued press releases shaming Brown, which resulted in a minor scandal in which a Brown aide got fired for illegally recording a telephone conversation he had with Chronicle reporter Carla Marinucci about the issue. By Feb. 5, Brown's office had retreated slightly, including the line "may allow insurance companies to increase costs of insurance to drivers who do not quality for a discount," but it came below the emphasis on the discount and had weak language that didn't reflect reality.

Eventually, after Rosenfield submitted studies proving this reality to the AG's office, it issued language that Consumer Watchdog finds fair and accurate: "Permits companies to reduce or increase cost of insurance depending on whether driver has a history of continuous insurance coverage."

Then something strange happened. Due to what AG's spokesperson Christine Gaspara labeled a "clerical error," the office inadvertently sent the old, weaker "may allow" language over to the Secretary of State's Office. And because they didn't realize this before the deadline passed, the AG had to sue the state and its ballot printer to get the correct language in the voter guide.

On March 12, Judge Allen Sumner ruled against Mercury, so the language will read: "Will allow insurance companies to increase costs of insurance to drivers who do not have a history of continuous coverage," which the official ballot argument against Prop. 17 says will be "$1,000/year (based on Mercury's numbers)."

Meanwhile, Rosenfield has also been jousting with Assembly Member Dave Jones (D-Sacramento), who is running for Insurance Commissioner this year, trying to shore up his opposition to Prop. 17 over the last few months. When we spoke last month, Rosenfield said Jones privately said he opposed the measure but had yet to do so publicly.

But Jones, who has a strong voting record supporting consumer rights, told us the criticism wasn't accurate, and that he has consistently opposed the measure. "As I campaign throughout the state, I point to Prop. 17 as a measure that we should defeat ... Certainly what Mercury is proposing in Prop. 17 would be bad policy and I oppose it. It undermines Prop. 103."

Like Rosenfield and other critics of the measure, Jones said the measure is bad for all Californians because it makes insurance more expensive for those who haven't had coverage. "The danger here is that the dramatic price increases could cause these drivers to drive without insurance — and that is dangerous for all of us," reads a statement on his Web site.

But the cached Web site function on Google shows that statement was the only one of nine issue statements that wasn't on the site as of Jan. 30. Asked when the statement was posted, Jones told us he directed staff to include it "some time ago, but we've had some issues with our site. It may have gone up recently for all I know."

Jones' Democratic primary challenger, Assembly member Hector de la Torre (D-Los Angeles County), has made an issue of his stand on the measure, telling us, "I came out very clearly and strongly on the measure and I wasn't calculating or cautious ... I came out against it months ago and I'm working within the Democratic Party to have them oppose it."

Also from this author

  • Cash backwards

    Ten things San Francisco should fund -- and 10 things it shouldn't -- to create a fair, equitable, and forward-thinking city budget

  • Clean Power SF still moving forward

  • Tale of two parties: Voters reject 8 Washington project