Senate delays vote on workers compensation bills

OLYMPIA — The Washington state Senate on Wednesday passed its first bills of the 2013 legislative session, but put off a vote on a set of controversial measures intended to save businesses money by changing workers compensation rules.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said the five bills dealing with workers compensation, which passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Monday, will likely come to the floor soon.

“We heard the minority’s concerns about being rushed and we decided to respect them,” Schoesler said.

Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said his caucus would not have stood in the way of a vote on the bills Wednesday but objected to an attempt to push action on them to Friday.

“We believe this needs to happen on a day when people will actually read about it in the newspaper,” Murray said.

Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, a centrist, said he would have voted against all the bills had they come up Wednesday, but could envision revising that stance.

“Giving more time lets me figure out what is in there which means that potentially there would be one that I could vote for,” Hargrove said.

One of the measures, Senate Bill 5126, would reverse a recent Washington Supreme Court ruling that barred the state from compensating itself for benefits paid to an injured worker by taking a cut of the pain and suffering damages awarded to the worker suing a third party for his or her injury.

Another, Senate Bill 5124, would change how an injured worker’s benefits are calculated, in part by excluding the value of his or her health benefits.

Two of the bills, Senate Bills 5127 and 5128, would make “compromise-and-release” settlement agreements available to all workers — they are limited to those 55 and older — and make it easier for the state to approve such deals, respectively.

The bill lifting the age restriction on such deals has a companion bill in the House, House Bill 1097, sponsored by Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw.

The proposed changes to the workers compensation system come in the wake of a raft of reforms passed in 2011 meant to rein in costs to a system widely viewed as overburdened.

The state’s Department of Labor and Industries recently proposed a series of tax increases, mostly aimed at employers, to raise $1.1 billion over the next decade in order to further shore up its reserves.

Among the five bills passed Wednesday with broad support were Senate Bill 5052, which would allocate an additional superior court judge to Whatcom County and Senate Bill 5021, which would change the name of the crime of rioting to that of criminal mischief.

Those bills will now be transferred to the House.

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