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Workers’ Comp Reform Receives Haslam Signature

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; May 7, 2013:

CLARKSVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today held a ceremonial bill signing at Clarksville Foundry, Inc. for his workers’ compensation reform legislation, HB 194/SB 200, approved by the General Assembly.

Workers’ compensation premium rates for employers in Tennessee are higher than the national average and higher than all of Tennessee’s bordering states, and the state is one of only two that adjudicated workers’ compensation claims in the trial courts, often delaying benefits to employees and producing inconsistent results.

The governor’s bill simplifies the system while allowing employees to receive benefits faster and return to work sooner, bringing increased predictability to the business environment.

“As I traveled the state during my first two years in office, I heard consistently from Tennesseans that reforming workers’ compensation would be a significant step toward improving our business climate and growing jobs,” Haslam said. “Our legislation brings clarity and fairness to the system and builds on our ongoing efforts to make Tennessee the No. 1 location in the Southeast for high quality jobs.”

The legislation

  • Provides disability benefits to an injured worker quicker;
  • Improves the quality of medical treatment;
  • Provides a clearer standard for causation and a neutral application of the law;
  • Allows employees to file claims in a court within the Division of Workers’ Compensation rather than trial court;
  • And creates a new ombudsman program in the division to help unrepresented employees and employers receive the assistance they need.

The bill was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Sen. Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) and Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland).

Governor’s Workers’ Comp Revamp Chugging Forward

Gov. Bill Haslam’s pro-business workers’ compensation reform legislation sailed through committees in the House and Senate last week and is headed for the next round of hearings in both chambers this week.

Rep. Jimmy Eldridge

Rep. Jimmy Eldridge

Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, chair of the House Consumer and Human Resources Committee, said the “Workers’ Compensation Reform Act of 2013” must pass through four more committees before reaching the House floor.

“I’d like to see this bill go to give all the members of the Tennessee General Assembly on the House side the opportunity to engage in the conversation and good debate on this important piece of legislation,” said the Republican from Jackson.

Despite its passage, it was clear not every member of Eldridge’s committee thinks the bill addresses the issues businesses say are driving costs upward.Tennessee workers' comp bill

“Where we’re messing up is in our medical costs. This bill doesn’t address that at all,” Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner told the committee. “I don’t care what they tell you, they’re not telling you the whole truth about this bill.”

House Bill 194 passed the House Consumer and Human Resources Committee along party lines, 7-3. Its companion, SB 200, sailed through the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, 9-0.

Jeff Bates, managing partner of TA Staffing in Nashville, and Brian Hunt, general manager of Southern Champion Tray in Chattanooga, both addressed the House committee in favor of the reforms.

Bates said 10 percent of the claims his company sees take 75 percent of money paid out for workers’ comp.

“You have to protect the truly injured worker, but at the same time you can’t have lingering claims controlling and bogging down the system to the point where it costs three to four times as much to settle a claim in Tennessee as it does in other states,” Bates said.

Hunt said 70 percent of the injuries at his company are “categorized as strains and sprains. They also account for 79 percent of our compensation dollars.” He noted that over the past five years the company has shelled out indemnity payments totaling nearly $1 million.

Rep. Kevin Brooks, who presented the bill on behalf of House sponsor Rep. Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga, said these issues emerged from a two-year study:

  • Tennessee’s rates are higher than neighboring states.
  • Employees are being harmed by lengthy delays in the current system.
  • Employers and employees are having trouble “navigating what is a complex and difficult workmans’ compensation system.”

Rocky McElhaney, a Nashville attorney who spoke on behalf of the Tennessee Association for Justice, said higher costs were a “red herring” to distract from harm to workers.

Rocky McElhaney

Rocky McElhaney

“Since the 2004 reforms, benefits paid to injured workers in Tennessee have already decreased 41 percent,” McElhaney said. “We’re paying workers less on average than our competing states.”

McElhaney said payments to physicians are actually what’s driving costs. He said state statistics showing how long cases take to adjudicate were skewed because only a sampling of cases were used.

In 2012 cases took 166 days start-to-finish on average, down from 309 days in 2008, McElhaney said, citing data from the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Rep. Glen Casada disputed the claim that the bill is heavily skewed toward employers.

“We as legislators must look at the macro of this, which is when Goodyear leaves, and their number one statement on why they left was workmans’ comp costs,” the Franklin Republican said. “All of a sudden, we’re not looking at dozens, we’re looking at 1,900 that are no longer here in Tennessee working.

“If that were to have a ripple effect, Bridgestone, Nissan – and I could go down the list – all of a sudden thousands of folks that work no longer have jobs in Tennessee. That is my concern.”   

HB 194 goes before the House Government Operations Committee Tuesday. SB 200 goes before the Senate Government Operations Committee Wednesday.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

NFIB Picks Favorite Incumbents to Support In August Primary

Press Release from the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee Chapter; July 6, 2012: 

NFIB Endorses Candidates in 5 Senate, 20 House Primaries

NASHVILLE, July 6, 2012 – The National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee’s leading small business association, today said it has endorsed candidates in 25 state legislative primary races. The endorsements were made by NFIB/Tennessee SAFE (Save America’s Free Enterprise) Trust, which is comprised exclusively of NFIB members. State primaries are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 2, with early voting beginning July 13 and ending July 28. NFIB expects to announce general election endorsements later this summer. The general election will be held Nov. 6.

“NFIB supports candidates who understand how important it is to reduce burdens on small business,” said Jim Brown, state director of NFIB/Tennessee. “These candidates have consistently supported less taxation and have worked diligently to improve our unemployment and workers’ comp systems.”

Endorsements by Senate and House Districts (NFIB members bolded)

Senate District, Name

2, Doug Overbey

14, Jim Tracy

18, Ferrell Haile

28, Joey Hensley

32, Mark Norris

House District Name

2, Tony Shipley

5, David Hawk

6, Dale Ford

8, Art Swann

10, Don Miller

11, Jeremy Faison

12, Richard Montgomery

20, Bob Ramsey

22, Eric Watson

24, Kevin Brooks

27, Richard Floyd

31, Jim Cobb

45, Debra Maggart

48, Joe Carr

61, Charles Sargent

66, Joshua Evans

71, Vance Dennis

90, John DeBerry

96, Steve McManus

99, Ron Lollar

NFIB’s endorsement is critical to these campaigns. Small business owners and their employees vote in high numbers and are known for actively recruiting friends, family members and acquaintances to go to the polls. NFIB has pledged it will activate its grassroots network on behalf of these campaigns. NFIB’s political support is based on the candidates’ positions and records on small business issues.

VIDEO: Haslam Helping Maggart, Says GOP Key in Advancing His Agenda

Gov. Bill Haslam hasn’t thought much about what his perfect General Assembly would look like, but says there’s “no doubt” the scores of Republicans in the Legislature have helped him advance his agenda.

Despite political division between moderate and conservative Republicans on several hot topics this year, Haslam says more GOP members in the Legislature means his team will have an easier time passing much of his legislation, like they did the last two years approving civil service and education reforms.

“I’d love to say it’s all my wisdom, intelligent approach to legislation. But the reality is when you have more people that are on your side, things tend to go a little easier,” Haslam told reporters after speaking at the Digital Government Summit in downtown Nashville Tuesday.

Haslam is promising to pop his head in at campaign events for GOP incumbents this primary and general election season, including House Education Chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville and Assistant Majority Leader Kevin Brooks of Cleveland, who both have primary election challengers, among others.

The newest legislator on Haslam’s list of candidates to stump for is Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville. Maggart has become the target of criticism for helping derail legislation to allow workers to store guns in their vehicles on their employers’ parking lots. She faces off against fellow Republican Courtney Rogers, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel supported by the Tennessee Firearms Association, in the Aug. 2 primary.

Haslam said his support is not an attempt to block someone who may be more conservative from taking Maggart’s spot.

“I thought she did take a lot of unmerited heat. I think anybody who would question Debra’s conservatism I think is missing something,” he said. “This isn’t just about Debra. It’s about helping a lot of folks who we think can be helpful to us in the process.”

House Skips School-Voucher Bill

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, was moving right along with discussion of his school-choice legislation in the House Education Subcommittee meeting Wednesday when the panel’s chairman suddenly called for a 10-minute recess.

That recess turned out to be a Republican caucus meeting in the office of Speaker of the House Beth Harwell.

And when members returned to the hearing room, a couple Republicans — Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the full House Education Committee — expressed their belief that Dunn’s bill ought to be sent to a summer study committee, an oft-used maneuver that puts an issue off for another day yet doesn’t kill the legislation.

The bill, HB388, the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act,” would allow low-income students in the state’s biggest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — to be given a “scholarship” to attend a public school elsewhere in the district, a public charter school or a non-public school.

The bill passed in the Senate last week 18-10.

But in sorting through just who stood where on the bill, the word “comfortable” kept coming up in the House subcommittee discussion.

“I think if we go to the summer study committee, actually look at it, have the opportunity to bring in people from other states who have been shown the success of it, everybody gets more comfortable,” Dunn said after Wednesday’s meeting.

“That’s the key word down here. You may have all the facts on your side. You’ve just got to get people comfortable.”

Montgomery said during the proceedings if he had a better “comfort zone,” knowing what impact the measure would have on local school authorities, he could move forward with the bill.

When the Senate voted last week on its version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson of Knoxville abstained, saying she was “a little bit uncomfortable” with the bill because of unanswered questions about the impact on a district like hers.

Kelsey has said he is confident that “once the House studies the issue and feels comfortable with the issue they are going to come to the same conclusion we did in the Senate.”

It appears that in broad terms, state government is testing its own comfort level with where it is on education reform.

The Legislature has taken bold steps, enacting tenure changes for teachers, challenging teachers’ collective bargaining rights, considering lifting limits on charter schools and now entertaining one of the hottest potatoes of school reform — vouchers. It’s hard to see where the education reform train stops or if the concept might actually be slowing down given Wednesday’s move on vouchers.

At one point early in Wednesday’s hearing, during discussion of a bill on licensing non-traditional teachers, Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, blurted out, “I think we’re doing too much reform around here. I think at the end of the year, all the bills will run into each other.”

Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for Tennessee Education Association, added later that unionized teachers “are feeling pretty beat down right now.”

“This has been a tough session,”Winters said. “They feel pretty put upon. They feel pretty singled out. And they feel there’s a lot of punitive things happening that are not good for relationships.

“This legislature has burned a lot of bridges.”

GOP Legislators Predict New Life in 2011 for Dead Bills from 2010

A trio of East Tennessee lawmakers sat down recently with their local newspaper, the Cleveland Daily Banner, and laid out a few issues they expect the Tennessee Legislature to take up next year.

Among the policy matters on the minds of Riceville Republican Sen. Mike Bell and Cleveland GOP Reps. Eric Watson and Kevin Brooks are:

The GOP lawmakers indicated they believe the new 64-34-1 Republican majority in the House will help assure that issues that died last year in the nearly-split chamber have a better chance of passing this time around.

Rep. Bell also noted that Republican Gov-elect Bill Haslam has begun considering ways to consolidate some of the 21 state government departments.

Members of the General Assembly will officially start work on Tuesday, Jan. 11. The session expected to stretch through at least mid-Spring.