Article by Erik Smith. Published on Tuesday, April 21, 2011 EST.
Eight Democratic Signatures Stun House, Shut Down Debate on Capital Budget – What Will Labor Do?
State Rep. Deb Eddy, D-Kirkland.
By Erik Smith
Staff writer/ Washington State Wire
OLYMPIA, April 20.—A new workers’ comp proposal from moderate Democrats stunned the state House Tuesday and shut down debate on the Legislature’s capital budget. And it looks like they’ve launched the last major battle of this year’s regular legislative session.
Eight moderate Democrats signed onto the proposal – the magic number required to bring this year’s big reform bill back to life. They threatened to withhold votes on a must-do bonding bill. And before a fight could break out on the House floor, Democratic leaders adjourned for the day.
The last-ditch proposal aims to break a deadlock on one of the biggest issues of the year – a sweeping reform of the state workers’ comp system. Business advocates, state officials and even the governor are arguing that the state-managed insurance program is headed for a breakdown. And in the waning days of the current session, the reform effort has boiled down to a single question. Should the state allow injured workers to take voluntary lump-sum settlements instead of pensions?
Workers would make a bit less, but state officials say they would rush to take the cash. The program would save big money. Payroll taxes would eventually go down. Business likes the idea. Labor is dead-set opposed, because it says workers might make choices they will regret later. And sympathetic House Democratic leaders so far have refused to allow a vote.
What’s new about the proposal that surfaced Tuesday is that it adopts every protective measure for workers’ rights anyone can seem to think of. What’s more important than that, though, is that enough moderate Democrats signed on to force a vote on the bill. The eight Democrats plus the 42 supportive House Republicans represent a majority of the state House.
That turns the counterplan into a revolt. And when the moderate Dems laid their proposal on the bar of the House Tuesday, they shut the place down.
Can’t Stop Those Roadkillers
State Rep. Deb Eddy, D-Kirkland, said the proposal is something House leaders can’t ignore. The moderate Democrats, who sometimes describe themselves as the Legislature’s loose-knit “Roadkill Caucus,” have been frustrated by the refusal to consider Senate Bill 5566. That’s the business-backed measure that would open the door to lump-sum settlements. It passed the Senate more than a month ago, but it has been stuck in the House labor committee, where Chairman Mike Sells, D-Everett, won’t bring it up for a vote.
“5566, as it came over from the Senate, wasn’t something that was seriously considered,” Eddy said. “What we asked ourselves was how we could amend this proposal in such a way that we could get it past the House.”
The proposal takes the form of an amendment to the Senate bill. Eddy is the prime sponsor. Other signers are Troy Kelley, Chris Hurst, Dean Takko, Kathy Haigh, Judy Clibborn, Larry Seaquist, and Fred Finn. Other Democrats are expected to join the Gang of Eight if the bill comes up for a vote.
Business is on board with it. The Association of Washington Business started cranking out emails late Tuesday afternoon, urging members to contact the Legislature for a last-ditch push. But the other big constituent group remains a question mark. A spokesperson for the Washington State Labor Council could not be reached Tuesday afternoon.
What it Does
The proposal tones down the Senate bill, to a degree:
n It doesn’t allow lump-sum settlements for medical claims.
n It prohibits those who are currently receiving pensions from seeking lump-sum payments – the settlements would go only to those with open claims.
n It establishes a new process under which an independent administrative law judge will review settlement agreements before taking them before the state board of industrial insurance appeals.
n It eliminates a study of state occupational-disease rules that had been contained in the Senate measure.
Eddy notes that settlements would be permitted only after a worker has been receiving benefits for six months — double the time of the Senate measure. That makes it clear workers wouldn’t be left starving while waiting for a settlement, as some critics have claimed. “The hyperbole around this issue just goes beyond the pale,” Eddy said. “People are making allegations about throwing workers under the bus. That’s just not true.”
Still Big Savings
Kris Tefft of the Association of Washington Business, lead business lobbyist on the issue, said the measure represents a significant compromise, but it’s something business can support.
Savings to the state’s long-term liabilities would still be enormous. Long-term liabilities would be reduced about $1 billion the first two years, not $1.2 billion. After that, the liabilities would be reduced about $200 million a year, not $250 million. But that’s big enough to win the vote of business. AWB started churning out emails Tuesday, notifying supporters to contact the Legislature and urge action on the bill.
Perhaps most important, Tefft said, is that the measure now addresses the biggest arguments that opponents have expressed publicly, by incorporating all the various “best practices” now in use in the 44 states that permit settlements. It will make Washington a national model, he said. “If this doesn’t go far enough, I don’t know what more we could do,” he said.
Clock is Ticking
The proposal sets up a dramatic endgame for the 2011 Legislature’s regular session. Only four days remain before the scheduled adjournment Sunday, and no one expects the Legislature to work on Easter. A special session is a certainty, and many want to call it quits before the weekend.
But there is plenty of pressure, for procedural reasons, to pass a worker-comp bill before adjournment, and there are a few plays left to make. The most obvious is that the Dems could team with Republicans on a procedural motion to “relieve” the labor committee of the bill and move it to the floor – at the cost of opposing their own party leadership.
But they can also make themselves felt in a less-offensive way by withholding votes on the capital-budget bond bill. That measure is one of the rare must-do bills that requires a two-thirds vote and thus the cooperation of Republicans. It is considered a less offensive strategy because Republicans also could block the budget bill all by themselves. But it’s not ironclad, because Democratic leaders could just wait until the special session to pass it.State Rep. Cary Condotta, R-Wenatchee, lead House Republican on the issue, said the battle is likely to continue until the Legislature’s final hours. “Let’s just say it’s going to be one of the final pieces of the final puzzle,” he said.