Fed up with high insurance rates, California voters last week did a Proposition 13-style number on the insurance industry, requiring firms to roll back rates to 1987 levels and then cut premiums by 20 percent. While that may have been a satisfying kick at the industry, it doesn't solve anything and may end up doing far more harm than good.
Insurers already have persuaded the California Supreme Court to delay implementation of the plan on constitutional grounds. Some insurance companies have said they will quit doing business in the state if the election decision stands.A larger problem worrying the insurance industry is that similar revolts may break out elsewhere, the same way copies of the tax-cutting Proposition 13 were tried in other states, with varying success. Unrest over insurance rates already is stirring in other states from Arizona to Massachusetts.
But citizens cannot ignore fiscal reality. Rates are based on what it costs an insurer to write coverage. The California vote was mostly fueled by high car insurance costs. Many companies already lose money on such insurance.
Arbitrarily demanding a reduction in rates leaves an insurance company no way to make up the loss. Some could be forced out of business, while others would limit their coverage to certain classes of customers. Either way, the consumer could be the loser.
The California vote also would require insurance companies to renew policies of existing customers. But this raises serious legal questions. Can voters get together and legally force a private company to operate at a loss? That premise seems doubtful.
All of this does not mean that efforts shouldn't be made to cut insurance rates, which admittedly have skyrocketed in recent years. Insurance companies are belatedly coming to recognize that they must deal with customer dissatisfaction, even if it pinches financially.
But there are limits to what an insurance company can do before falling into the red. Voters in other states should not be encouraged by the California example into trying to dictate prices without considering the costs.