MAIF's embarrassment of riches


THE Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund has a big-time problem. It's rich. So rich, in fact, that other state agencies are itching to get their hot little hands on MAIF's $118 million surplus.

MAIF's been approached about financing a new football stadium in Baltimore. Sen. George W. Della Jr. of Baltimore has sponsored a bill that would shift $50 million of MAIF's money to the general fund. And the Schaefer administration is pilfering $5.4 million from MAIF to help balance the budget.

MAIF is Maryland's state-run insurer of last resort. Any Maryland motorist who's turned down by at least two commercial insurers is automatically MAIFed.

MAIF's rates aren't cheap. Depending on how bad a motorist's record is, the driver's age and ZIP code, bare-bones coverage can range from $2,559 to a stick-it-to-'em high of $8,677 a year.

That MAIF should be suffering such an embarrassment of riches during a time of budget cuts and deficits is an embarrassment itself. MAIF's $118 million surplus is larger than the $100 million budget shortfall that's being plugged with keno proceeds and other money.

In theory, at least, MAIF is supposed to be non-profit. It was created in 1973 as an antidote to the no-fault insurance craze at the time, kind of an everybody's-fault approach. It's run by a board of trustees and receives no state funds, nor are its assets part of the state treasury. To settle claims, MAIF has the power to attach salaries and seize property.

Over the years, the commercial insurance companies in Maryland have pumped $137 million into MAIF. In effect, good drivers subsidize the insurance of bad drivers. In 1980, MAIF had 30,000 policies. Today it has 135,000.

Much of MAIF's excess is due to changes in the way it does business as well as some shrewd investments. At the same time MAIF has reduced rates over the past three years, it's also lowered awards. MAIF is also now doing all of its work in-house instead of farming it out to free-lance adjusters and collectors.

So it should come as no surprise that the Schaefer administration's pie-slicers approached MAIF about lending the Maryland Stadium Authority $100 million to help finance a new football stadium if Baltimore wins one of two NFL expansion franchises.

There are serious legal questions about whether the Stadium Authority has a funding mechanism for another stadium if the city is awarded a team. Because of a change in the tax code, the use of tax-free bonds to finance stadiums expired at the end of 1990.

The authority argues, though, that it's confident that it can float tax-free bonds because there have been a number of test cases around the country that might allow it.

Moreover, the authority has a bonding limit of $220 million, of which it has already used $170 million to build the new baseball stadium. The authority will pocket another $30 million over three years from lottery proceeds -- on top of the $50 million in bond money left over from the ballyard -- a total of $74 million. But a new topless football stadium will cost about $130 million. Put a lid on it, and it'll cost millions more.

So here's the catch: If the authority can't float tax-free bonds, it will have to go to market with bonds at a much higher interest rate. But before it can go to market with bonds, the authority will need the General Assembly's approval to increase its bonding capacity. This could hoist the total bond package over the spending affordability limit. Allowing this is action the legislature is reluctant to take.

It's for this reason that Gov. William Donald Schaefer is bypassing the spending affordability limit and proposing the use of transportation bonds to finance improvements to Baltimore's Convention Center. Now he's trying to scoot around the spending limit again just in case there's a football team in the city's future.

So drive carefully. Get MAIFed, and the premiums you pay could wind up helping to finance some government geegaw.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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