Lawmakers return; Gregoire offers workers comp idea

The OlympianMay 19, 2011 

An end to the Legislature's special session may really be in sight, as House members scurry back to the Capitol Friday for budget hearings and a new flurry of weekend work. The moves come as budget writers in the House and Senate moved closer to agreement , and Gov. Chris Gregoire apparently laid out new ideas for breaking the deadlock on workers compensation reform.

House Democrats have been unwilling to allow a floor vote on Senate Bill 5566's proposal to let injured workers settle permanent disability claims for a lump-sum payment of cash, which Republicans, some Democrats and Gregoire had sought. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said in an interview yesterday that settlements are not good for workers – explaining that a worker whose spouse has cancer but no health insurance might take the lump sum out of duress, only to leave himself short of income later on.

Democratic Rep. Tami Green of Lakewood described Gregoire's new proposal as a “hybrid” that isn't quite a settlement, but declined to offer more details. She said House staffers are analyzing the new concept to see if it works – and if it does, she believes lawmakers can finish work before their 30-day special session ends next Wednesday.

But until they know more, Green said House Democrats are not willing to share details with the business and labor groups that have been at loggerheads or rank-and-file lawmakers. She said it could take a couple of days – until Friday perhaps – to know if it is feasible.

Gregoire's office did not immediately have information about the new concept late Wednesday. Despite the disagreements, one thing is not in dispute: One of the trust funds for the workers compensation system is underfunded.

The recovery in the stock markets has helped close some of the gap, according to the Department of Labor and Industries. But L&I has argued lower costs in the system also are needed for the system to get to a sustainable footing.

To do that, Gregoire originally proposed reforms to save more than $700 million in costs over four years. But her plan leaned heavily on cutting down the number of lifetime pensions, which are far more numerous than in other states such as Oregon.

She also sought also to deduct a worker's Social Security allotments from pension payments once the worker reached retirement age.

The reduced pension idea also is a nonstarter with Chopp, who also disputes claims that the settlement option has worked well in Oregon. He took pains yesterday to say that the House Democrats' objections to the Senate's reform bill is not his alone – but a great majority of his 56-member caucus. House and Senate Republican leaders have blamed Chopp for freezing the reform and thereby blocking resolution of the special session.

Green says that 45 members oppose the settlement option, although there are enough House Democrats including Rep. Chris Hurst of Enumclaw willing to vote for a version of the pensions bill that could pass the House with Republican support .

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said his caucus is backing a cluster of improvements to the workers comp system that would save $710 million over four years– including two pieces that Gregoire already signed into law for improving the delivery of occupational health solutions that get workers back on the job sooner.

Other House Democratic proposals would create a “rainy day fund” inside the trust funds using excess funds during good times – instead of cutting rates charged to businesses and workers during good times. Gregoire and her predecessor Gary Locke both ordered rate reductions during the past decade.

Democrats also want to freeze cost-of-living adjustments for pension recipients, just as lawmakers are doing for retirees in their overall budget, Sullivan said.

Chopp said other nettlesome issues slowing the session are moving toward resolution – including agreement on a new debt limit that is between the 7 percent approved by the Senate and the 9 percent in the Constitution. He declined to say where the middle ground is, but a House committee passed a bill this week pegging the number closer to 8 percent. FOOTNOTE: While I was running to a Redistricting Commission meeting last evening, my news partner Jordan Schrader posted this take on the situation following our interview with Chopp.

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