A bond bill for capital projects that sailed through the House Capital Budget Committee this morning on a bipartisan vote. That belied the fact the measure might end up as a bargaining chip in a separate and very partisan fight over workers compensation reforms.
The vote on House Bill 1348, which is the nearly $1.4 billion bond proposal, was 11-0. The House's $3.1 billion capital spending bill, known as HB 1497, also sailed through 11-0. The capital budget can pass on a simple majority or 50 percent plus one vote, but the bond bill requires 60 percent, which the 55-member House Democratic Caucus can't accomplish without at least four Republican votes.
Rep. Hans Dunshee, the committee's Democratic chairman says he's heard the bond measure will be taken hostage by the minority GOP to further the worker comp reforms that the Washington State Labor Council and allies strongly oppose.
"It's the No. 1 hostage," Dunshee said last week. He contended that children who need new schools that would be built with the bonds are also hostage and some of the expected 51,000 jobs to be created in the capital budget also are at risk.
House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt confirmed that his caucus might use the bonds as pressure if they cannot get action on Senate Bill 5566, which lets injured workers settle long-term disability claims for cash upfront.
Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state Department of Labor and Industries are trying to find ways of lowering long-term pension costs in the workers compensation area, and so-called "compromise and release" of claims is a piece of that. They also want to discount disability payments by the amount of Social Security earnings, but labor and its allies in the House are balking on grounds it hits poor and vulnerable disabled workers too hard.
SB 5566 passed the Senate on a bipartisan 34-15 vote that saw 12 Democrats including Majority Leader Lisa Brown join 22 Republicans (South Sound Democrats in favor were Sens. Jim Kastama of Puyallup, Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch).
After that March 5 vote, the bill moved to the House where it has been stuck in the labor committee.
"We're looking at any leverage we can to make sure we don't have a 30 percent tax increase" on businesses through higher worker compensation rates, DeBolt said. “Right now, that's the only leverage we have.''
DeBolt contends the bill must pass to head off rate increases that would cover shortfalls in the fund, which were caused largely by investment losses tied to the Wall Street meltdown.
Rep. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, co-wrote the capital budget with Dunshee and didn't rule out the is the chance her caucus members might withhold votes to get the workers comp bill to a floor vote. Warnick said last week that one or two bills emerge every session as tools in other fights, and the construction-bond bill looks like a strong candidate this year.
Jeff Johnson of the labor council and allies have supported some elements of reforms that help get injured workers to better qualified medical professionals and also help them back on the job sooner.
The Senate is expected to roll out its bipartisan capital projects budget after 5 today.