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Senate likely to debate worker's comp reduction

February 08, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Informal negotiations between a handful of Senate Republicans and Democrats will likely push a bill to reduce the state worker's compensation program to the floor on Wednesday.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, said the talks came at the request of the governor's office and were aimed at paving the road to passage for a bill that would restrict worker's compensation claims to injuries in which work was the "prevailing cause" and exempt injuries of an unknown cause and injuries that result from a preexisting condition.

"Everyone can empathize with the injured worker, and so, the whole goal and the focus of this is to try to reduce the gray areas and make sure we take care of the legitimately injured workers," Loudon said.

The bill, which could have seen the Senate floor as early as Feb. 3. was the first one filed for the 2005 session and had been moving quickly through the legislative process until the negotiations.

The effectiveness of the talks is under dispute, and while Loudon said they were going "great," Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, expressed less enthusiasm.

Green said it was difficult to determine the status of the negotiations because leadership has decided to send the bill to the floor Wednesday and finish floor debate by Thursday.

"If we were going to do this properly, I guess we would have done it in committee, but we were rushed into voting it out," Green said.

Unlike past debates on worker's compensation, Loudon said many of the most contentious issues such as the definition of accidents, and abrogating circumstances are not the focus of the negotiations. Instead, they are focusing on how liberally the law will be construed, whether there will be a discussion on the qualifications of administrative judges and how to handle payments when a company has gone bankrupt.

Despite the meetings, lawmakers did not anticipate a sedate or abridged debate on the issue.

"It's hard to discuss worker's comp and not have it be lively because there are a lot of emotional issues involved and strong opinions on both sides," Loudon said. "But it looks like we have the most conciliatory stance on both sides that we've seen in a long time."

Green declined to comment on the specifics of the negotiations but said the floor debate will be the sounding post for flushing out the details of the legislation.

"It's hard to say where we are right now," he said. "But it's like a television show: you'll have to wait for the next episode."

The curbing of worker's compensation has the support of Republican leadership in the General Assembly and from Gov. Matt Blunt. Proponents have argued that current benefits are too costly for employers and drive business out of the state while critics argue the changes would eliminate reimbursement for legitimate work injuries.