There may be near unanimous opinion that Massachusetts' state-controlled automobile insurance rate system ought to become more competitive, but opinion is far from joined on how and when.
''I just don't see the (Gov. William Weld) administration being enthusiastic or the folks at the (state insurance) department having the resources'' to implement a competitive system by next January, said Ed Donahue, New England representative for the Alliance of American Insurers.Some interests, such as the American Insurance Association, call for moving soon to competition, perhaps by January 1997.
But with Insurance Commissioner Linda Ruthardt due to hold a second hearing on the competition question July 2, most say there is not enough time left in 1996 to make major market changes. Massachusetts is the only state where the insurance commissioner sets private passenger auto insurance rates.
No one has yet publicly stated what form this competition should take, although some see bench-rating Texas-style to allow insurers to discount or raise rates a certain percentage below or above a state-set base as one possible answer.
Underlying the problem of rates, and the 26 territories to which they are applied, are subsidies that rural and suburban drivers pay to keep urban drivers' rates at least reasonable.
UPHELD IN COURT
A federal appeals court in Boston last month upheld Comm. Ruthardt's power to use rating territories. But some say those territories, defined by municipal boundaries, could easily be changed in the interest of fairness.
With Gov. Weld running for the U.S. Senate this year, political considerations weigh heavily in major Weld administration policy shifts.
No one, especially the governor, wants a repeat of ''disastrous'' rate shifts that occurred in 1977, when the state last tried a competitive automobile system.
Some say a loophole in a 50-year-old insurance law allowing group discounts, and ''deviation'' from the state's Safe Driver Insurance Program, already allow limited competition.
The Insurance Division has authorized about 1,800 groups, whose members get discounts of 5 percent to 20 percent on the auto insurance premiums, as well as 28 insurance company plans for discounts of up to 10 percent for drivers with no or minor infractions, who do not belong to groups.
The Insurance Division is not partial to deviation, suggested spokeswoman Lisa Birknes, because it allows discounts for drivers who have received traffic citations. That defeats the purpose of the SDIP, she said, but is legal until the Legislature changes the law.
Both rate reduction programs are new in the market, with some observers saying they need time to prove themselves.
PLEA FOR TIME
''We support a phased-in competitive rating approach,'' said Ken Mudie, regional vice president of Hanover Insurance Co., eighth largest Massachusetts auto writer. ''At least test the type of competition currently happening . . . We need a little more time to see how discounts and deviation work.''
But others, such as AIA, point to a 1990 study of the Bay State market as a starting point for Comm. Ruthardt in hurrying to a stiffer competitive market. Some insurance interests, such as the Professional Insurance Independent Agents of Massachusetts, call for January 1998 as a target for some form of competition.
But at least one consumer group - which calls for drastic reductions in agencies to allow alleged savings from direct writing - said it may take until 1999 before a major change can take place. ''The current system is very complex and has some real attributes,'' said Jason Adkins, executive director of the consumer-oriented Center of Insurance Research. ''How you get the bad out of it and hang on to the good is the question.''