Posts

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.

Legislature Targets 18-21-Year-Olds in Liquor Stores

The General Assembly passed a bill last week to stiffen penalties for people 18 to 21 who refuse to leave a liquor store at the request of the owner.

The bill, HB2459/SB2544, was originally much more strict and required that anyone under the age of 21 be accompanied by someone over the drinking age. It was amended to its current form.

“A person may be charged with a criminal trespass if the person is between 18 and 21 years, visibly intoxicated, or otherwise disruptive, once the owner of a retail package store has asked the person to leave and the person remains,” said Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, sponsor of the bill.

The necessity of the bill was questioned by Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, as this would already be illegal under current Tennessee law.

“This is just clarifying the law that’s already on the books, and we’re putting this in the code that deals with alcohol, that deals with package stores,” Eldridge said.

According to Eldridge, the state has had an underage drinking problem for many years, and in 2010, Tennessee citizens spent more than $1.3 billion dealing with this problem.

The source for Eldridge’s claims is a report on underage drinking in Tennessee by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a group that advocates stricter drug and alcohol laws. According to the report, the costs to citizens of Tennessee is divided as follows: $88 million for “medical costs,” $452 million for “work lost costs” and $740 million for “pain and suffering costs.”

Rep. Joe Towns Jr., D-Memphis, voiced skepticism at the figures cited in the study — and the ability of the law to address any the received problem of 18-21-year-olds drinking.

“I just have concerns when we so easily criminalize these young people, because when you’re 18, 19 years old, you do a lot of silly stuff,” said Towns. “And I don’t think we should so easily criminalize the behaviors of our college students or of our kids who are not yet matured in mind, but legally they’re 18 to 21 years old.”

Political Movement on Megasite

Gov. Bill Haslam presided over the first meeting of the governing body of the Haywood County megasite Monday in Jackson, but it was Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey who offered the most pointed advice to the new board.

He spoke from experience.

“You will have a lot of highs and lows,” said Ramsey, who was Hamilton County mayor as Chattanooga pursued the Volkswagen plant that ultimately brought a $1 billion investment to the megasite there.

“This is a very patient process that a lot of people will be impatient about. It’s hard work. There will be times people will say that nothing is happening. I’ve been called a lot of funny names. There will be those days when it’s a little bit slow.”

But the message was perseverance, and Ramsey encouraged West Tennessee leaders to weather the down times as the site seeks a client like Volkswagen or Hemlock Semiconductor, which made its own $1 billion investment at a megasite in Montgomery County and has already announced a substantial additional investment there.

After the meeting, Ramsey visited the Haywood County site, accompanied by Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, and Rep. Curtis Halford, R-Dyer, as well as other officials working on the project. The group included Haywood County Mayor Franklin Smith, whom the board elected chairman at its meeting on Monday. Haslam did not visit the site Monday but has been to the location on more than one occasion.

Haywood County is the last of the state’s three TVA megasites, designed to attract major business relocations, an issue that not only plays a role in the state’s economic future but has become a political football in its own right.

Haslam recently announced that the state will move away from the emphasis on attracting huge business re-locations and concentrate on feeding the growth of existing businesses in the state. But Haslam told board members Monday that the significance of the West Tennessee site has not diminished.

“I can assure you there are few things we care as much about as the proper development of the megasite,” Haslam told the group at a conference room at the McKeller-Sipes Airport in Jackson.

“I said back when I was campaigning, and I’ll say it again now, I think it is one of the best assets we have for the state when we look at economic development. We do not have a lot of pieces of property like this that are available.”

The site sits near Stanton, north of exit 42 on Interstate 40. At this point, the project remains only a conceptual plan. The site was originally certified to meet the potential needs of an automotive manufacturer. There is no indication that an auto maker will move into the site, but state officials hope a business will locate there that can attract numerous suppliers, as an automotive manufacturer would.

“We’re not pinning all of our hopes for job development on the megasite. We have some prospects right now in this part of the state we’re working hard to hopefully bring here,” Haslam said after the meeting. “But this is a great long-term project.”

Board members were briefed on where progress on the site stands now. It is in a vastly rural area, which creates challenges for infrastructure. Authorities told the board Monday the location would need 3 million gallons of water a day and that three wells are being dug into the Memphis aquifer to meet that need. Each well would draw 1.5 million gallons, and the board was given assurances Monday the amount of water would be adequate to meet the need. Waste water services will also be necessary.

The site will need a water treatment system, which will be on the property, and Highway 222, which runs through the middle of the site, will need to be re-routed. The board was told that while no specific funds were put into the budget just passed by the Legislature that flexibility is in place to make funding available if a client is found for the site. The state already has $34.7 million set aside in the Department of Economic Development for use on the Haywood County project.

The site includes 3,800 acres, with the core site comprised of 1,700 acres.

Democrats had criticized Haslam and other Republicans during the legislative session that ended Saturday for not putting more funds into the megasite at a time when the state is desperate for jobs. Several lawmakers from West Tennessee, including Democrats from the House and Senate, attended the meeting Monday in Jackson. But there seemed to be agreement and optimism among lawmakers from both parties that the project is on the right track.

Nevertheless, it still figures to be at least two years before a big business could be up and running at the site, the board was told Monday.

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the House Democratic leader, Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, had been critical of Haslam’s lack of attention to the megasite in his budget earlier this year. But all three attended the board meeting Monday and appeared upbeat about the project.

Smith’s selection as chairman was noteworthy in that he has been an integral player in seeking support for the megasite and made a campaign ad for Haslam in last year’s gubernatorial race, although Smith is a Democrat.

“We’ve been patient. I’ve been working on this almost seven years,” Smith said after the board meeting in Jackson. “Patience is something we’ve got.

“What people need to understand is this is a state project. There is statewide support for this project. I want folks to understand this is not a Haywood County project. It will benefit everybody in West Tennessee.”

One Step Forward, Two Back

Rep. Jimmy Eldridge said he didn’t know prior to Tuesday’s House Finance, Ways and Means Committee meeting that he’d want to put off discussing anti-collective bargaining legislation.

But once the Jackson Republican saw that yet another lengthy amendment was being added to an already much-amended bill, it became clear to him that the House Education Committee was better suited to examine the rewrite than the finance committee. So he made a motion to send the bill back from whence it came.

Four other Republicans and nine Democrats backed him and in the process overpowered remaining GOP members of the committee, including GOP House Leader Gerald McCormick, who personally tried, but failed, to kill Eldridge’s motion.

But Eldridge said later his intentions were not to “derail” the push by his fellow GOP lawmakers that’s become the focus of so much attention this session. “My heart led me that way, and I wasn’t trying to kill it, or persuade it or affect it any way,” he said.

Nevertheless, Eldridge’s move brought to the fore the question of whether the effort to repeal the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act has enough support to pass the House this year.

McCormick told reporters Tuesday night he suspects not.

Despite the caucus leader’s perceptions, though, the one higher-ranking Republican in the House, Speaker Beth Harwell, said Wednesday it’s still too early to start writing postmortems for the legislation this year.

Harwell said the bill, HB130, still has a “razor-fine margin” of support and barring any other big surprises on track to ultimately pass.

The House Education Committee is expected next week to consider the new amendment, which closely resembles language in the Senate version of the bill — SB113 which won approval Monday — requiring districts to develop policy manuals on how they decide labor issues. The move kicks the bill two steps backward as it had already passed that committee along with the finance subcommittee.

The legislation also mandates that school boards sit down with teachers and their respective unions to discuss labor contracts, although the school boards would have the final say on what does or does not get implemented. Unions, however, would no longer enjoy de facto veto authority over school policies they oppose.

House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery said he “has a feeling” the body will OK it despite its highly volatile nature.

“This isn’t about teachers,” Montgomery said. “This is about trying to free up the system so that it operates better and we can all work together better as a team.”

But Montgomery added that he considers it vital to ensure that input from teachers is sought and heard by locally elected school officials.

“At the end of the day we are going to come up with a piece of legislation that I hope will let the teachers feel comfortable that they have a voice,” he said.

The five Republicans who voted to send the bill two steps back in the legislative process all cite different reasons for their actions, ranging purely from not wanting to get their hands dirty navigating through education policies to disagreeing with the underlying motives of the bill, which is the perception among Republicans that the 1978 law mandating local districts negotiate solely with unionized teachers is unfair, unproductive and often unnecessarily antagonistic.

That’s not a view accepted by Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach of Rutledge. Like Maryville Republican Douglas Overbey in the Senate, Roach is with the Democrats on this one, and there’s nothing his fellow Republicans can put in the bill to make him vote for it because he feels the proposal does nothing to improve education or help teachers.

“I can’t support it in any form right now. You add one bad amendment, take off a bad amendment add another bad amendment, it still does the same thing, and what they’re trying to do is the same thing no matter what amendments are on the bill,” said Roach.

Scotty Campbell, of Mountain City, said he’d rather be talking about the government solving persistent unemployment problems and securing disaster-relief funding for his constituents instead of getting sidetracked by thorny debates over the nature and merits of public sector employee unionization.

“We were in the finance committee. I’m not on the education committee. I’m not on the education subcommittee,” said Campbell. “I’m not an education expert, so I voted to refer the legislation back to its proper place.”

Rep. Jim Coley said he voted for the delay not because he’s a teacher and member of the Tennessee Education Association — which is directly affected by the bill — but because the finance committee isn’t equipped to be responsible for the new thrust of the collective bargaining ban.

But the Bartlett Republican said he’s not sure what side of the issue he’ll be on when it’s time for him to vote. And he’s not sure it’ll have enough votes to get to the floor.

“I think the committee is divided. I think you can tell by the vote to send it back to education that there’s some division among Republicans and more unanimity among Democrats,” said Coley. “I think it will be a close vote, either in the committee or on the House floor.”