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Wednesday, August 12, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Editorial: Lawmakers should still fix workers’ compensation

Now that the 2010 election is over, Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries has no further reason to withhold the extent of the industrial insurance rate hike it will impose on the state’s workers and employers for 2011.

So now we know. Officials of the state-monopolized workers’ comp system, which state voters declined to reform at the ballot box, announced this week they intend to take 12 percent more from the economy in 2011 than they are taking in 2010 – which is 7.6 percent more than they took in 2009.

And, in all honesty, that might be too little if they want to avoid the insolvency that auditors have predicted.

Traditionally, the department announces in September its rate plans for the following year. Not in 2010, though. This year the department deliberately withheld the announcement until this week, explaining that to have made it just before the election, in which voters could have OK’d a fundamental restructuring of the program, might have led to too much confusion.

Indeed, with nine complex measures on the ballot, confusion abounded. One of those measures, Initiative 1082, would have ended the state’s monopoly over industrial insurance and allowed private carriers to compete for the business, as they do in all but four states.

Would voters have rendered a different decision had they known before marking their ballots that a 12 percent rate hike loomed? Probably not.

If they had known, though, they might have asked enough questions to find out that there’s more to the current fund’s problems than the recession’s erosion of investment earnings. They might have learned that Washington’s system produces disproportionately high numbers of lifetime disability pensions and significantly longer than average time-loss claims for workers injured on the job. They might have questioned why Washington, like only six other states, disallows a settlement option under which an injured worker can negotiate a final lump-sum payment rather than remain a lifetime pensioner whose claim remains open indefinitely.

Moreover, voters might have gone to the polls pondering why Washington is such a rarity in so many aspects of its industrial insurance program and whether that might explain why its rate adjustments have been so volatile compared with other states – even though workplace injury claims are declining.

Washington’s Constitution provides the initiative petition as a way for citizens to write their own laws if the Legislature lets them down. But the failure of one such attempt, namely I-1082, doesn’t prevent lawmakers taking the issue up again when they convene in Olympia in January.

It’s politically improbable that elected lawmakers would enact a proposal just rejected by their voters, but the Legislature’s strength is its ability to dissect issues and improve the whole by fixing the parts. There will be plenty of opportunities for that approach in January, beginning with a settlement option for permanent disability cases.

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