Chopp May Support Reining in BIAW This Year

By Erica C. Barnett November 20, 2009

House speaker Frank Chopp (D-43), who scuttled so-called "retro reform" last year (legislation that would have prohibited trade groups like the Building Industry of Washington from spending a portion of state-funded workers' comp refunds on political ads), may support a version of retro reform this year, according to an account of a meeting this week between Chopp and representatives of the King County Democrats, among other sources.

The "retro" program—so called because payments are made retroactively—works, more or less, like this: Companies in "high-risk" industries (restaurants, construction, etc.) form trade associations that pay collectively into the state workers' compensation fund. If they end up having fewer accidents than expected, they get some of that money back. That money is supposed to be spent improving worker safety.

However, groups like the conservative BIAW have historically skimmed 20 percent off the top of the refunds for political purposes—funding, for example, a campaign on behalf of Republican gubernatorial challenger Dino Rossi in 2008. Additionally, miscalculations by the state resulted in more than $100 million in overpayments to high-risk "retro" groups. "Retro reform" measures would put an end to both practices.

According to an item in the Puget Sound Liberals' newsletter by 2008 Democratic House candidate David Spring, Chopp told the group that he wants "to end the skimming of money from the workers comp program" and “limit the use of these funds to their original intended purpose, which is improving worker safety."

Chopp, according to the newsletter, told the Democrats that the House will have enough votes favoring retro reform this year because of a report released earlier this year. That report, known as the Wyman Report, confirms that hundreds of millions of dollars were shifted into groups like the BIAW's, and that tens of millions of that amount were spent on political campaigns. Chopp also told the group that momentum in Olympia had shifted toward retro reform, according to the newsletter, which also says reform efforts will be led by Rep. Steve Conway (D-29).

State Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-44), who supports retro reform, is skeptical that the House will pass much more than "retro lite" this session—perhaps fixing the problems that caused overpayments, but stopping short of prohibiting groups from spending workers' comp refunds on political campaigns. "Don't expect too much of that," he cautions.

I have calls in to Chopp, as well as House reform supporters Sharon Nelson (D-34), Brendan Williams (D-22), and Tami Green (D-28).

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