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Another Comp Reform Deadline Passes

Times Staff Writer

Another of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deadlines has slipped away without an agreement for reforming California’s costly workers’ compensation insurance system.

Leaders of both houses of the Legislature sent members home to their districts on spring recess Thursday, telling them to be prepared to be back at the Capitol on 24 hours’ notice if negotiations produced a package of bills.

The governor had hoped to have legislation ready for a vote before the break, but a deal that all parties can live with remains elusive.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) cautioned that, even with an agreement, bills dealing with the workers’ comp system wouldn’t be ready for debate and a vote until the spring recess ends April 12.

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The governor, nevertheless, remains optimistic. “He believes that all sides are close to an agreement on the principles,” said Vince Sollitto, a Schwarzenegger spokesman.

But Schwarzenegger, who had set a deadline of March 1 and then March 26 for reaching a deal on workers’ comp, is keeping his options open. He’s threatening to take the complex workers’ comp issue to the voters in November if a legislative solution isn’t on his desk soon.

Proponents of the initiative have collected about a third of the 1 million signatures from registered voters they want to gather to ensure they’ll have the 598,000 valid names needed to qualify for the ballot.

The deadline for turning in the signatures is April 16.

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“Until the governor’s signature is dry on a bill, we’ll be going full speed ahead,” said Beth Miller Malek, a spokeswoman for the initiative campaign.

Lobbyists for both labor unions and the state Chamber of Commerce, who spent days negotiating with the governor’s office earlier this month, say they, along with the governor, would prefer to craft a workers’ comp fix at the statehouse. One reason: If changes need to be made later, modifying an initiative can lead to lengthy court challenges.

The employers and labor groups lament that they remain in the dark about what might emerge in a workers’ comp bill. Both sides say they expect some sort of deal to wind up in bill form by the time lawmakers return.

“We don’t know if any of the issues have been closed on yet,” said Tom Rankin, president of the California Labor Federation. “It’s frustrating when something so important is in someone else’s hands.”

Rankin’s counterpart in the business community, California Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg, said he was also puzzled.

“You can’t tell anything until you see some language,” he said, noting that the ongoing negotiations have not produced any written proposals that can be evaluated by the public -- or by lobbyists.

Earlier this week, Schwarzenegger blamed “special interests” for blocking a compromise on workers’ comp.

Republicans are concerned that a deal could be worked out between Schwarzenegger and top Democrats -- Senate leader Burton and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez of Los Angeles -- that wouldn’t produce significant savings in the estimated $22-billion-a-year workers’ compensation system.

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The Democrats, who dominate both houses of the Legislature, don’t need a single Republican vote to pass a reform bill. The governor knows that “if he works with Democrats, he can get things done,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant who worked with the governor on last month’s successful budget deficit bond issue.

Republicans are pushing for provisions to tighten medical standards for awarding injured workers permanent disability benefits. They also want more employer control over choosing doctors to treat accident victims; stricter limitations on determining that an injury occurred on the job; and an easing of a requirement that workers’ comp appeals judges “liberally” interpret the law in favor of victims.

Republican legislators worry that they will be asked to vote on a bill that gives them less than they could get by backing the initiative. They’re pondering whether it’s worthwhile to take “half a loaf,” one Republican insider said.


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