Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles Kills Workers' Comp Bills

Sen. Kohl-Welles says we need more talking on workers'-comp reform.
Today was pretty much the last hope for business owners asking the legislature to make significant changes to what they say is the state's broken workers'-comp system. And it didn't go well for reform advocates.

In short, businesses want to make it harder to get benefits and allow companies to settle long-term claims. Unions are opposed. (We reported on the fight at length two weeks ago.)

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), whose committee oversees workers' comp, made it clear this morning that she will not support any bills related to changing the system because "we just cannot get legislation, policy-wise, through this 60-day short session."

Rep. Steve Conway (D-Tacoma), Kohl-Welles' counterpart in the House, has already said he will not hear any bills on the subject. That makes Kohl-Welles' statements today pretty much the final nail in the workers'-comp reform coffin for this legislative session.

Kohl-Welles added that she doesn't want to kill the issue completely. She pushed forward a bill she sponsored that would create a task force to study the issue.

Kris Tefft, Director of Government Affairs for the Association of Washington Business, told Kohl-Welles that he doesn't see a task force making much progress, with labor and employers unable to even agree that there's a problem with the system at all. An informal group of labor and business representatives convened by the governor to talk about workers' comp this fall couldn't agree on anything, he says.

Speaking by phone prior to the hearing, Kohl-Welles pointed out that a similar task force established to create the state's vocational rehabilitation program took 18 months. But now that program exists.

Judy Schurke, Director of the Department of Labor and Industries, which oversees workers' comp, didn't really take sides, but she said some kind of reform needs to happen soon. Thanks to the high number of people in Washington who are getting expensive lifetime disability payments, the state's fund paying out those benefits is overstressed. "I still have to set rates for 2011, and the picture doesn't look much better," she said.

Rising rates and the death of workers'-comp reform bills in Olympia might have unintended consequences for labor. Unions are vehemently opposing an initiative sponsored by the Building Industry Association of Washington, which didn't testify today, to privatize the state's workers-comp system. If anything is going to fire up the BIAW's supporters, it's going to be inaction in Olympia and another rate increase.

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