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THE CALIFORNIA LEGISLATIVE SHOWDOWN : Workers’ Comp Package Is Expected : Reform: Speaker says a compromise proposal is likely to emerge today for a vote by the Legislature. All sides are seeking to cut escalating costs and increase benefits.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With time running short, lawmakers met in a committee Sunday to fashion a compromise workers’ compensation package, while Assembly Speaker Willie Brown said he expected that a proposal would emerge for a vote today by the full Legislature.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers remained far apart on several issues but were working into the night to come up with a plan to cut the escalating costs of the troubled $12-billion system and increase benefits to injured workers.

At the same time, Gov. Pete Wilson insisted that he wanted to sign a workers’ compensation bill into law. Wilson sent a letter to Brown and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) urging that they produce a bill and said he is “flexible on how to achieve meaningful reforms.”

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“Workers’ comp deals historically come together in the last hours of the session,” said Casey Young, a Wilson Administration official who negotiated for the governor.

But election-year politics and hard feelings over the two-month budget battle worked against the bill. Brown renewed his charge that Wilson does not expect to sign a bill, but rather intends to use any lack of action against Democrats this fall.

It remained to be seen whether a deal could be struck that would satisfy Brown.

Brown made a brief appearance in the committee room and appeared far more relaxed than when he visited the committee late Friday to tell his Democratic colleagues in a heated discussion that he opposed a major insurance provision in the proposed bill.

Brown said after he left the room Sunday that he assumed the committee would approve a package of bills and forward it to the Assembly and Senate floors for consideration by the end of the term tonight.

“I’m watching closely to make sure (the committee members continue to) work,” Brown said.

After Brown’s visit on Friday to express his displeasure, the committee shelved the bills, seemingly killing any chance of a workers’ compensation overhaul for this year.

But Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), who is crafting the overhaul, succeeded Saturday in getting a rule waiver that allowed the committee to continue meeting well past the deadline for such hearings.

Another member joined the committee on Sunday--Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles), part of Brown’s inner circle. She was a non-voting member. Moore, who has carried workers’ compensation legislation before, was hoping to get consideration of a bill that she authored.

The Speaker explained that he opposed the bill proposed Friday because it did not immediately deregulate insurance rates imposed on employers. He maintains that deregulation would help lower costs to employers.

Margolin’s legislation stops short of proposing deregulation and instead shifts more authority over rates to Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, something that Brown opposed.

As it is, the system is riddled with fraud and abuse. Employers pay among the highest premiums in the nation, while injured workers collect benefits that are among the lowest--a maximum benefit of $336 a week.

Democrats want to increase maximum benefits to injured workers to $448. Republicans proposed raising them to $396. After four years, the rates under the Republican plan would rise to $516.

The money issue is only one of many differences.

The Republican bill, carried by Sen. Bill Leonard (R-Big Bear) and Assemblyman Paul Horcher (R-Whittier), would gut an entire field in the $12-billion workers’ comp industry by denying workers’ compensation reimbursement for vocational rehabilitation specialists who retrain injured workers.

Vocational rehabilitation costs are rising at 28% a year, making it the fastest growing part of the ever-inflating workers’ compensation pie. It consumes an estimated $650 million a year.

Democrats have various proposals to limit payments but stop well short of abolishing reimbursement for vocational rehabilitation.


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