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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Workers’ comp becoming a yellow brick road-block

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 the 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, 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.

Certainly not Gov. Chris Gregoire, who is increasingly Shermanesque in statements on a second special session, about which she is asked by the press gaggle every time she sits down to autograph bills into law and hand out souvenir pens to sponsors and supporters. Two weeks ago she asserted a second session “is not in my vocabulary.” Last week she advanced to “I’m not calling them back.”

At one point she suggested reporters were the only ones talking about a second special session. While it’s true the gaggle only attends bill signings because they have nothing better to do, reporters can barely navigate the legions of lobbyists or schmooze with legislators without hearing speculation of a second session.

The Legislature went into overtime because it hadn’t settled on a general operating budget, which is, as oft reported, facing a gap of $5.1 billion between what the state expects to collect in taxes and what it would need to cover the costs of all programs and employees currently on the books.

The budget reportedly is worked behind closed doors, by the Gang of Eight, with both parties’ leaders in both chambers and both parties’ top budget writers from the chambers’ Ways and Means committees. A spending plan will surface at some point for a vote, pretty much like a sausage to be tossed on the grill.

But the budget is not really holding things up. It’s a fight over a proposed change to the state’s workers’ compensation system that has Gregoire’s blessing, and bipartisan support in the Senate, but Democratic leadership’s fierce opposition in the House.

Compromise and release, as the change is called, would let the state settle claims from injured workers who are older than 55 with a lump sum payment; they’d be taken off a pension and out of any retraining program if they voluntarily take the cash. Business groups love this idea, as it will lower their payments to workers’ comp; unions hate it, seeing it as the beginning of the end of the state’s unique system that is marking its centennial.

There are signs that the silos are being hardened for a nuclear exchange. Last week, progressives began noting the Legislature has a constitutional duty to enact a budget, but no such duty to hold a second session to alter workers’ comp. Business supporters, meanwhile, began questioning labor’s motives, noting that a similar change allowing voluntary settlements was made in Oregon with union backing, so what’s the problem here?

Meanwhile, rank and file legislators are given days off and sent home for long weekends. When protesters posing as zombies shuffled to the Capitol on Friday nearly two hours behind schedule, after the House had quit for a long weekend, it became clear that the undead are the only things in Olympia moving slower than the Legislature.

When the House returns Tuesday, there will be eight days left in the session and possibly not enough time to pass a budget and the dozens of bills needed to change state law to make that budget work. Especially with a work schedule set in the Land of Oz.

Spin Control is a weekly column by Olympia Bureau Chief Jim Camden. Visit the blog at blogs/spincontrol.