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WA Lege Day 24: Inslee says skip more workers comp reforms

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee thinks the Legislature should leave the state's workers compensation system alone and work through the reforms approved in 2011.

House Republicans and the GOP-dominated Senate majority think the state needs to reform the reforms.  

Although not terribly surprising, they managed to highlight their disagreement rather pointedly Wednesday.To read more about it or to comment, click here to go inside the blog.

WA Lege Day 22: Workers comp fight expected

OLYMPIA — The Senate is expected to debate bills that would make changes in the state's workers compensation system today. 

Changes in workers comp? you may ask. Didn't they strike a deal on that back in 2011?

Yes. But one of the changes they made, which was to allow woluntary structured settlements for injured workers aged 55 and older, is the subject of one of the bills, and Senate Republicans want to expand it to cover all workers. Labor-backed Democrats are opposed to that, arguing the younger the worker the greater the likelihood  he or she could be coerced into a bad settlement.

Both business and labor will be watching this first big test of the majority coalition in the Senate. Whatever passes there still faces an uphill fight in the House.

Also on the agenda today are committee sessions on repealing the family and medical leave act, a sales tax holiday for back to school clothes and supplies, training wages, and a request for the feds to reclassify marijuana.

A full schedule for committee hearings can be found inside the blog.

Unemployment tax rates to drop, workers comp rates steady

Gregoire at press conference: Show me some real reforms.

OLYMPIA — Most Washington businesses will see lower unemployment taxes and many will have no increase in their workers compensation rates in 2012.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, announcing the new rates for next year, said they represent “real reform” through work with the Legislature earlier this year, rather than the calls for reform some legislators now say are needed before the state considers a tax increase.

“I've been doing reform long before anybody used it as a political football like they are today,” Gregoire said. “No one has come to me with any new ideas that will solve a $2 billion problem.”

The state's General Fund budget has a gap of about $1.4 billion between spending that  has been planned for state programs and salaries, and revenue the state is projected to collect through June 30, 2013. Gregoire has proposed nearly $2 billion in cuts to close that gap and provide reserves to start the next biennium.

Under the unemployment insurance and workers comp rates announced this morning:

  —88 percent of businesses will pay lower unemployment tax rates, and those reductions will be available even for some companies that have laid off workers in the last four years. About 11 percent will pay higher rates because of the level of  benefits paid to former employees.

  —Unemployment taxes will drop in all 40 rate classes. The rate 1 class, which covers some of the state's smallest businesses, will drop by 71 percent. The total amount of unemployment taxes that will be collected by the state in 2012 will drop an estimated $200 million.

  —There will be no general rate increase for workers compensation, for the first time since 2007. Some individual employers will see their rates go up, depending on their claims history or their industry. Of the state's 317 risk classes for jobs and industries, 171 risk classes will go up and 146 will go down or stay the same.

Those rates are a result of comprehensive reform of the workers' comp system the Legislature passed earlier this year. State officials said it would save about $1.1 billion over four years.

Workers comp passes Senate

OLYMPIA – After tying the Legislature in knots for much of the last three months, changes to the state’s century-old workers compensation sped through both houses Monday with comfortable margins. It passed the House 69-26, and the Senate 35-12.
The changes, which also have the support of Gov. Chris Gregoire and should soon become law, are projected to save the disability system some $1.1 billion over the next four years and stave off double digit rate increases for businesses.
To read the rest of Tuesday's print edition story, or to comment, click here to go inside the blog.

Shea idea key to workers comp deal

OLYMPIA — A key piece to the puzzle of making changes to the state's workers compensation system came from Rep. Matt Shea, who suggested negotiators drop the idea of “lump sum” payments in favor of structured settlements.

Shea, R-Spokane Valley, suggested a system that is more common in settlements over tort claims, or lawsuits involving damages. Rather than giving an injured worker the full amount of any agreed payment all at once, the state could give workers the money over time through a structure set by statute.

Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, complimented Shea during floor debate on the bill and explained later in a prepared statement the suggestion became a key to negotiations because House Speaker Frank Chopp had refused to consider lump-sum agreements that were included in other bills. “It's an innovative suggestion that gained acceptance among negotiators and it was a key piece of the puzzle that allowed us to move forward on needed workers compensation reform.”

Shea, an attorney, said he talked with other attorneys and labor representatives about the concerns with lump sum settlements, that some workers wouldn't have money left for later. He suggested a system used in damage lawsuits that pays out a settlement over time. “The governor accepted the idea and it was written into the agreed conference legislation.”

Day 26: Workers comp deal ‘very close’

OLYMPIA – Legislators may reach a deal sometime today on one of the key stumbling blocks to passing a budget and adjourning, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Gregoire said Saturday evening.

They still disagree on major changes proposed for the state’s workers compensation system but progress was made in a day of negotiations, Jim Justin, Gregoire’s legislative director, said. “We are very close. Something’s going to happen in the next 24 hours.”

But a deal is not guaranteed, he added: “Is there a potential for it to still blow up? Yes.”

Justin spoke as the Legislature adjourned after a rare Saturday session. . .

To read the rest of this post, click here to go inside the blog.

Special Session Day 26: Slow start (or is that slow restart?)

With most legislators playing the waiting game, the most productive thing in the Capitol Saturday morning may have been the wedding photos being taken of Evaline and Dennis Zalevskiy, scene here pausing at the top of the Rotunda steps for their videographer. Afterwards, they entire wedding party went outside and did an “Abbey Road” pose in one of the crosswalks.

OLYMPIA — The official start time of today's legislative session was 10 a.m. Actual start time is somewhat less definite.

House went straight to caucus. Senate went at ease. Negotiators continue to discuss the 2011-13 operating budget and a possible compromise on Workers Compensation for Compromise and Release.

Neither chamber will be doing anything until 1 p.m. at the earliest.

Organized labor sent out a press release denouncing the latest iteration they were shown by Gov. Chris Gregoire Friday morning. It still contains voluntary compromise and release settlements for injured workers age 55 and over, State Labor Council President Jeff Johnson said. No major changes but “some nuances are different.”

They're against it. Johnson said it will create a “litigious system” in our state. “It's not a reform of the system. It's a cost-cutting measure.”

Legislative leaders and members of the business community were in on discussions last night in the governor's office. Labor wasn't there, Johnson said. “They didn't invite us. If anything's changed, it's only getting worse.”

Sunday Spin: Are we in Oz, or what?

OLYMPIA – May might be the cruelest month in the state capital. The rain gives way only sporadically to sun breaks, momentarily lifting the gray gloom that shrouds the dome most days and giving everyone a glimpse of snow-covered Olympics jutting up beyond a sparkling Budd Inlet.

And then it’s gone, with most capital denizens the crankier for being reminded about what they are missing.

Yes, the cherry blossoms were in bloom for a while, until beaten off the trees by intermittent downpours. Yes, as a former Spokanite I am thankful it is not snowing. And yes I know that people who talk about the weather do so because they have nothing better to talk about.

One might assume that with the Legislature well into its special session – as you read this Sunday, it will be Day 20 of a 30-day session, two-thirds gone – there would be plenty to talk and write about: legislative legerdemain worked, compromises struck, budgets debated and passed. One would assume wrong.

The Legislature has come through a Tim Eyman supermajority of the special session as though the work schedule were set by the folks in the Merry Old Land of Oz: “We get up at 12 and start to work at 1/Take an hour for lunch and then at 2 we’re done.” It’s not clear, however, who’s having jolly good fun.

Special Session Day 7: GOP maneuver on worker’s comp fails

OLYMPIA — House Republicans tried to force a hearing and vote on a proposal to change the state's workers compensation system but failed Monday afternoon.

At issue is a plan which would allow for voluntary compromise and release of workers compensation payments an employee might have if injured on the job. Such lump sum payments could reduce costs to the workers comp system and stave off a rate increase, supporters contend. It has the potential for taking advantage of injured workers when they are vulnerable, opponents counter.

The bill has Gov. Chris Gregoire's backing and passed the Senate with a bipartisan vote. But it hasn't had a hearing, let alone a vote, on the House side.

Monday afternoon, Rep. Charles Ross, R-Naches, asked to suspend the rules and call up a new bill on the plan for a hearing and full debate right away. Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, argued against the maneuver, contending the issue was “one of those issues, along with a number of others, we will continue to work on.

The parliamentary move failed on a 43-52 vote.

The House then recessed until Thursday  morning.

WA Lege Day 74: New workers comp bill in works. House budget coming next week?

OLYMPIA — An attempt to breathe life back into efforts to revise the state's workers compensation system will be released late today or Friday by the governor's office — a new bill that tries to find savings to help make the system solvent, Gov. Chris Gregoire said.

What it won't have, she said, is a provision for “compromise and release” a change much desired by business and much loathed by organized labor. A bill with that change, which passed the Senate weeks ago, is bottled up in the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee, and isn't likely to see the light of day.

Republican House leadership believes they could pass that bill if they could get it to the floor. Democrats say they couldn't, and Gregoire said she's not taking any chances.

Her new bill will have a provision for voluntary settlements for workers over age 55, along with a freeze of cost of living adjustments and offsets of workers comp payments with Social Security, and a Rainy Day fund system, she said. But no compromise and release.

“I'm not willing to risk…it fails and we have nothing and go home,” Gregoire said.

The Legislature has one month left in its regular session, and still has not produced a comprehensive budget in either house to address the 2011-13 biennium and a projected $5 billion shortfall between money expected to come in and money that would have to be spent for existing programs.

Gregoire said she's been told a spending plan from the House, which takes the lead this year on budget writing, should be released early next week. She's been told it will not propose an increase in gambling to increase state revenue. If any legislator has such an idea, “they need to tell me…because there are real legal issues associated with the tribes.”

The state and many of the tribes have gaming compacts that define what each can offer in the way of gambling.

Unemployment, workers’ comp proposals ambitious

Gov. Chris Gregoire has ambitious reforms planned for Washington's unemployment insurance and workers' compensation programs. Bert Caldwell parses some of the devilish details in his Sunday column.

Hearing Tuesday on workers’ compensation increase

The Washington Department of Labor & Industries will hold a hearing in Spokane Tuesday on its proposed 12 percent increase in workers' compensation premiums.

Average premiums would climb 6.5 cents per hour.

The hearing begins at 10 a.m. in the auditorium at the CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley. Written comments will be accepted until 5 p.m. Tuesday.

The increase takes effect on an emergency basis Jan. 1.