Earlier this week, the Majority Coalition Caucus-controlled Senate passed a package of bills aimed at reforming the industrial insurance system in Washington state–the second batch of reforms in three sessions. Both times, Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry (R-13, Moses Lake) has been the driving force behind the effort to make substantial and controversial changes to a 100-year-old state-run labyrinth that all employers and employees pay into to help workers who get injured on the job.
These controversail changes (labor is fuming about them) were also the first big policy win for the MCC, the new Republican-dominated majority bloc in the senate that took over from the Democrats this year when two renegade Democrats, Sens. Rodney Tom (D-48, Medina) and Tim Sheldon (D-35, Potlach) joined league with the GOP.
“Workers’ comp inspired many of us two years ago. We realized we had a philosophical majority.”—Sen. Holmquist Newbry
It's appropriate that workers' comp legislaiton was the first big win for the MCC. According to Sen. Holmquist Newbry, workers' comp issues played a part in creating the new majority. “Workers’ comp inspired many of us two years ago. We realized we had a philosophical majority,” she says. At that time, the informal Roadkill caucus, comprised of moderate Democrats like Tom, Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens) and Sen. Brian Hatfield (D-19, Raymond), had emerged as a conservative force, but were organizing with the Democratic caucus. The majority Democrats saw some of the votes that session—like compromising on the first round of workers' comp legsilation—as a way to appease the new group and keep them in the fold. But Republicans recognized that Democrats had a much bigger problem on their hands, and saw that moment as their chance to start reeling in members.
I talked to Holmquist Newbry about her efforts yesterday. She says the bills are a bipartisan solution that she’s open to improving—and denies claims by some Democrats that the process was unfair. “We don’t think workers’ comp should be a partisan issue,” she says.
The bills remove medical benefits from workers’ comp calculations, lower the maximum settlement amount, and allow workers age 40 and over to take structured settlements, rather than lifetime payouts.
Previous reforms had set the minimum age at 50 and Republicans had originally pushed for workers of any age to be able to bargain for a settlement. But moderate Democrat and sometime-GOP-ally Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens) proposed an amendment to change the age limit that Sen. Holmquist Newbry and the MCC accepted, and which helped that bill get 30 votes (instead of the MCC's slim 25), including those of Democrats Sens. Tracy Eide (D-30, Federal Way), Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah), Brian Hatfield (D-19, Raymond), and Hobbs.
Some Democrats complained that the bills were rushed through the process, but Holmquist Newbry tells a different tale: “We bent over backwards in committee,” she says, strengthening portions of the bills to ensure workers aren’t taken advantage of—like lengthening the waiting period before an injured worker can take a settlement and allowing claims to be re-opened if the injuries turn out to be worse than initially anticipated. She said the bills have “a lot of good fingerprints” on them and said part of her strategy for passing them so early in session was to give members in both houses a chance to review them, talk them over and make improvements.
Democrats who opposed the bills on the floor, such as staunch labor Democrat Sen. Steve Conway (D-29, South Tacoma), says it would be detrimental to injured workers by cutting benefits, and that the changes are unnecessary because the fund is healthy. And Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33, Kent) said the bills lower costs for businesses at the expense of injured workers.
But Holmquist Newbry disagrees. “We heard all these floor speeches (this year) where people were saying the sky is going to fall. The sky isn’t going to fall,” Holmquist Newbry says. “All I can hope is that folks will realize we’ve only seen positive outcomes” from reforms that have been in effect for about a year now.
Holmquist Newbry says cleaning up the system, which has the highest pension rate in the nation—twice the average time loss and provides the highest benefit to injured workers of any plan in the nation—is one way the state can help business thrive. Democrats counter that Washington is the only state in the nation where workers pay a portion of the premium and that being a statistical outlier doesn’t necessarily mean the system is broken. Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-23, Bainbridge Island) protested on the senate floor: "We've heard people say today our system is bad because employees get benefits that are too high. This system is bad because we award annual pensions, more so than any other state? Our system is bad because we pay injured workers to heal and give them time to recover?"
Holmquist Newbry conceded that her legislation may not go anywhere in Rep. Frank Chopp's (D-43, Wallingford) Democratic House until the final days of session, when the MCC can use them for bargaining leverage.
Last week's Capitol Newsmaker of the Week was Rep. Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Capitol Hill). So far, Pedersen is the only Democrat to get Niki's nod, making the score to date: 3-1, advantage Republicans.