Leading Washington lawmakers are struggling to find a compromise that would alter the state’s workers’ compensation system and help seal a budget agreement.
Negotiators emerged from a 45-minute, closed-door meeting May 18, 2011, afternoon with little progress to report. It was the first gathering for a small group of key players tasked with finding common ground. The meeting comes just a week before Washington’s 30-day special session is set to end.
The Senate has approved a plan that includes an option of lump-sum settlements with workers who receive benefits for a prolonged period. It’s something Gov. Chris Gregoire and many House members also support.
But House leadership has said it is not interested in allowing settlements because it could lead workers to accept fewer benefits than they would otherwise be entitled to receive.
Sen. Janea Holmquist-Newbry, the Moses Lake Republican representative in the negotiations, said she wasn’t any more optimistic after the meeting that a deal can be reached. Nobody was willing to share specifics, but Holmquist-Newbry said all sides are going to consider the ideas on the table before meeting again on May 19.
“I still have a glimmer of hope that we can reach some sort of resolution and take a step forward this session,” she said. “It’s not going to be what I want necessarily, though.”
Holmquist-Newbry said she hopes there will be a compromise with the support of House leadership, but she warned that supporters could push through a plan even without an agreement from all sides.
The compensation system surfaced as a key issue after the state auditor said last year that reserves in the system are at risk of insolvency.
About 85 percent of compensation costs come from 8 percent of all claims, which involve workers who are receiving benefits for a prolonged period or have lifetime pensions, according to the Department of Labor and Industries.
Workers’ compensation rates increased by an average of 12 percent for 2011, and business groups fear another double-digit rate increase in 2012.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the discussion — also involving House Speaker Frank Chopp — focused largely on whether there was any acceptable plan that would allow for lump-sum settlements. She called the meeting productive.
“As long as people are talking, you have a better chance (of reaching a deal) than when there’s a standoff,” Brown said.
Workers’ compensation has become a key roadblock in the overall effort to finalize the state’s budget for the next two years. Brown said the Senate plans to work through this weekend in hopes of finishing work before a special session ends May 25.
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