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. Slam dunk to get to Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards and put the former trial lawyer on the hot seat?
Think again, unfortunately.
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. But, as MacAoidh points out it will end up scuttled by the Senate Judiciary A Committee, to where Sen. Pres. John Alario – an Edwards ally and prospective continuous legislative candidate – will surely assign it.
By committee jurisdictions, Talbot’s bill would seem to fit naturally with the Senate Insurance Committee. But here’s why Alario clawed his way to both a House speakership and Senate presidency in his nearly half-century legislative career. Wanting to maximize its chances of going down, instead he’ll surely shunt it to one of the three Judiciary (A, B , and C) committees, which all have extremely general jurisdictions so almost anything can end up there.
Insurance would have been touch and go, despite a 7-2 GOP majority, 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 would have given 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 Alario could join him. That leaves a bare majority to send it to Edwards’ desk.
Don’t count on it.
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.
But why risk that it gets through? The Judiciary committees are configured by Alario to be able to pass or kill certain bills, and A turns out to be the perfect assassin. Not only does it have only a 4-3 GOP majority, but those Republicans include Gatti, Martiny, and Ward.
In fact, with that configuration, it could allow Gatti and Ward to cast show votes in favor of the legislation (Martiny is term-limited). Ward doesn’t as yet face a tough opponent this fall, but Gatti has drawn one (who explicitly supports bills like this) and needs all the chances he can get to cast conservative votes to mask an indifferent record.
If the bill comes to Edwards, his veto would make for a ready-made campaign issue against him. Therefore, he desperately needs to cut the bill off before it reaches him, so he will depend heavily on the likes of Alario, Gatti, and others to do his dirty work for him.