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Press Releases

Green, Durham Introduce Bill to Create ‘Free-market Alternative’ to Worker’s Comp

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; February 12, 2015:

The Tennessee Option will help employees return to work, create economic development opportunities

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), a physician and Vice-Chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, and Representative Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin), House Majority Whip, today introduced a bill to create the Tennessee Option, a free market alternative to state-mandated workers’ compensation insurance. Sen. Jack Johnson, Chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, is co-sponsoring the Senate bill. Rep. Glen Casada (R-Thompson Station), Chairman of the House Republican Caucus, is co-sponsoring the version in the House of Representatives.

 

“The core focus of the Tennessee Option is to help injured employees get back to work faster. Making that happen requires good benefits, strong communication, and will lead to higher employee satisfaction,” said Sen. Green. “An Option will also give job creators a way to save more than 50% on workers’ comp costs, so they can invest in growth and more employees.”

The Tennessee Option will create an alternative way for employers to provide traditional workers’ compensation benefits – medical, wage replacement, etc. – under an injury benefit plan. Sen. Green’s said the bill eliminates the need for volumes of statutes, paperwork, and litigated decisions, while still delivering employee protections and accountability. Employers using an Option in the two states that currently allow it – Texas and Oklahoma – see improved employee satisfaction following an injury and lower program costs, which creates economic development opportunities.

“We will cut red tape for Tennessee businesses with the Tennessee Option. That is reason alone to pass the legislation,” said Rep. Jeremy Durham. “If we want to make Tennessee a better place to work and live, we have to take bold steps like this to help employers while still protecting employees.”

Oklahoma passed Option legislation in 2013, and Texas has allowed alternative injury benefit programs for more than 100 years. Texas employers using the Option have saved billions of dollars while increasing employee satisfaction and return-to-work rates. The Tennessee Option will not replace workers’ comp; instead, it will act as a competitive pressure on the system to produce better outcomes for the true stakeholders – employees and their employers.

“We have the opportunity here to help Tennessee employees, Tennessee employers, and Tennessee economic development,” Green concluded. “I look at the Tennessee Option as a way to set our state apart when companies are looking to locate here and create hundreds or thousands of jobs, because that’s why I was elected – to get Tennessee back to work.”

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Press Releases

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).

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NewsTracker

TN House Dems Have Fingers Crossed for Longshot Haslam Vetoes

Tennessee House Democrats held a post-session press conference Tuesday voice their disappointment with much of what the GOP supermajority-controlled Legislature passed this year.

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley was joined by House Caucus Chair Mike Turner of Old Hickory and Memphis Rep. Antonio Parkinson to speak to reporters about what issues they wish the General Assembly would have acted on and new laws they think the state could do without.

Turner charged that the session was a boon for the wealthy Tennesseans and corporations but “if you were in the middle class, it was a terrible session for you.”

Chief amongst the concerns Turner mentioned was the Haslam administration’s overhaul of workers’ compensation that he called “a tax on sick workers.”

“That did not really address the problem that keeps the cost rising—the medical costs—and just took more money out of workers’ pockets,” said Turner.

Leader Fitzhugh, meanwhile, said his biggest disappointment was the governor’s decision not to accept nearly $1.2 billion in federal Medicare expansion money. But Fitzhugh didn’t fault Haslam completely, saying some of the blame rests with his own party for not doing enough to rally their base on the issue.

“I think our problem, as Democrats, this time is we didn’t get the message out to the people who could have been affected, Fitzhugh said. “I think there are people out there that don’t really that they were this close to having the ability to have health insurance when before they couldn’t afford it… and I’m just sorry we didn’t get the word out to more of them so they could have risen up a little bit and tried to convince the governor.”

While the Democratic lawmakers weren’t shy about questioning many of the session’s Republican-backed initiatives, they were hesitant, when asked by reporters, to choose which new laws they thought were the worst, saying they didn’t want to jinx the possibility, however slim, that Haslam might choose to veto some of them.

“There are a lot of things he could veto and we’ll sustain him on probably all of them if he vetoed them,” Turner told reporters. “I don’t want to influence his veto one way or another until after the fact. Come back with that question after—what’s he got, 10 days or something like that?”

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Business and Economy Featured NewsTracker

Workers’ Comp Rewrite Rolls Through Senate, Bearing Down on House Floor

While Gov. Bill Haslam’s workers’ compensation reform bill has had bumpy hearings in House committees, the track was clear and the ride mostly smooth on the Senate floor Monday night as SB200 passed 28-2.

Currently, the Volunteer State is one of only three states that adjudicate workers’ compensation claims in court. If the legislation passes, an independent agency run by an administrator chosen by the governor would oversee the process.

Supporters say the new system will process claims faster and cost less while opponents say it doesn’t address the real issue of higher medical costs and that workers will receive smaller awards and have more difficulty getting claims approved.

WorkmansComp

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, of Collierville, who carried the bill in the upper chamber, said he feels the reforms “are not only going to keep Tennessee competitive, but are going to benefit the workers of this state.”

Only Sen. Doug Overbey rose to speak in opposition to the sweeping legislation, which House Democratic leaders called “just wrong,” “shameful” and “immoral” during a show of solidarity with labor-union protesters on the steps of the Capitol last Tuesday.

“There are many good provisions in this bill,” said the Maryville Republican. “The part of the legislation I’m troubled about, though, is the part where we are creating new positions in state government.”

Overbey named 28 new positions outlined in the bill’s fiscal note, noting that there are already “spread all across the state” court clerks to file claims and judges “who have been adjudicating these claims since the workers’ compensation law came into effect.

“So my problem is that we have the processes in place in the status quo. If we were making only the substantive changes, or many of the substantive changes, I could support those, but to create all of these new positions, I cannot support it,” he continued.

While less concerned about the size of state government, groups opposing the reforms have raised similar doubts about the wisdom of moving the dispute resolution process away from the court system. The governor’s plan would place the new agency under the state Department of Labor, the subject of recent negative attention. A state comptroller’s audit found the DOL issued $73.4 million in overpaid unemployment benefits over the past six years.

Mary Mancini, of Tennessee Citizen Action, a group fighting the legislation, cited the comptroller’s findings Tuesday, telling TNReport that the DOL’s poor handling of unemployment benefits should give lawmakers pause.

“It’s being mismanaged, and it’s just completely plagued with problems now,” Mancini said of the Department of Labor. “It doesn’t make sense to add this entirely new system, an entirely new department within there without them fixing what’s wrong with it first. This is not good for working people and their families. It’s certainly not good for the state of Tennessee.”

Asked about these concerns Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Haslam told reporters that he thought the comptroller’s audit had no bearing on workers’ comp.

“I think it’s a whole separate deal,” Haslam said. “One of those is about processing claims, and one of them is about adjudicating workers’ comp issues, so those are two very, very different issues. They’re in the same department, I admit, but they’re two very different issues.

During discussion on the Senate floor, Sen. Jack Johnson noted that most of the new positions added under the bill would be converted from existing positions.

“For example, 20 existing attorney positions in the workers’ compensation division will convert to 16 workers’ compensation judge positions, as well as one chief judge position and three administrative review board judge positions,” said the Republican from Franklin.

Johnson did not address Overbey’s other concerns, that an administrator would appoint the judges deciding claims and that payments to injured workers who return to work would not be much higher than payments to those who do not.

“I am concerned there is not an incentive to get employees back to work, which is a very important incentive under the status quo,” Overbey concluded. He, along with Democratic Sen. Lowe Finney, of Jackson, both voted no, while Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield, of Knoxville, and Democratic Sen. Jim Kyle, of Memphis, did not vote at all.

At the protest rally last week, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said the legislation would create “another administrative branch, basically, to government, which is something that we certainly don’t need to do. We have the court system that’s working well.”

The Ripley representative also noted that the real costs to employers “are coming from medical costs, and this bill doesn’t even touch those at all. It only looks at the already reduced benefits to an injured employee.”

On Tuesday, HB194, the companion to SB200, passed the House Finance, Ways & Means Committee along party lines. The bill is now headed to the House Calendar & Rules Committee.

Despite his best efforts, the six amendments offered by Fitzhugh all failed without discussion. Each one was met with a tabling motion to kill it without discussion.

Saying that he supported previous workers’ comp reforms, Fitzhugh urged committee members to not pass the bill, but to study it and look at the medical costs involved, which he believes “are the real drivers of cost in Tennessee.”

He also stated that he didn’t think that now is the appropriate time “to ramp up an entire new department,” given that the Department of Labor and Workforce Development is without a commissioner.

John Klein Wilson contributed to this story.

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

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Press Releases

House Dems Oppose Haslam on Workers Comp Changes

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; March 26, 2013:

House democrats join with workers to oppose radical changes to workers’ compensation insurance

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House Democrats joined with workers from across the state at a rally to oppose the Governor’s proposed changes to the workers’ compensation system in Tennessee.

“Working people in this state are getting rolled over like a freight train by the wealthy special interests who want to use the Republican super-majority to pick the pockets of workers in our state,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. “This so-called ‘reform’ of the workers’ compensation system does nothing to address the medical costs that are driving up rates, and does everything to balance the books on the backs of injured workers.”

The Governors’ workers’ compensation changes would reduce payments to injured workers and place the appeals process out of the hands of the local judiciary and give it to a new state bureaucracy. The end-result of the proposals will be to make it easier for employers to fire injured workers, resulting in bankruptcy for people who were injured on the job by no fault of their own.

“I voted for workers comp reform a few years back because I thought it was needed for workers and businesses in this state,” said House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “But like so many things this year, we are rushing through this bill, we aren’t seriously addressing the actual problems in the workers’ compensation system, and we are creating a new level of bureaucracy in this state. For all those reasons, I will oppose this legislation and I hope my colleagues will too.”

Hundreds of concerned citizens and workers from across the state have called and written to the Governor asking him to reconsider these proposed changes to the workers comp system in Tennessee. Workers advocates are deeply concerned with provisions in the bill that would cut benefits to all injured workers, create a new bureaucracy controlled by the Governor, and will jeopardize workplace safety in the future.

“This is perhaps the worst piece of legislation that I have seen since I’ve been up here in terms of what it does to hurt working families in Tennessee,” said Chairman Turner. “I hope the Governor will listen to the voices of Tennesseans who came out today to oppose this so-called ‘reform’ package, and works to find a way to address the real problems in the state’s workers’ compensation system that does not endanger the livelihood of injured workers.”

HB194 by Leader McCormick (R-Chattanooga) is scheduled to be heard in the Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee on Wednesday, March 27th.

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Press Releases

Turner: Workers Comp Reform ‘Breaking’ System, Not Fixing It

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; March 12, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The House Consumer and Human Resources passed HB194, the workers compensation reform package, on a 7-3 party-line vote. During the hearing, House Democratic Chairman Mike Turner criticized the supporters of this legislation for “fixing” the workers compensation system on the backs of injured workers in our state.

“This so-called “reform” is nothing more than an outright assault on the safety and financial security of working families in our state,” said Chairman Turner. “We are not fixing a broken system; we are breaking a system that works for the people of Tennessee.”

Studies show that under our current system, 77% of the costs of workers compensation goes to doctors and medical facilities; however, the plan only addresses the 23% that is left to workers by reducing payouts and making it harder for employees to initiate compensation claims. Additionally, the bill removes the appeals process from the jurisdiction of local courts and into an appointed board.

“’When are we going to do something for the working people in this state?’” asked Chairman Turner at during the hearing. Calling out the special interests who are pushing this bill, Chairman Turner said they have “no regard for the people of Tennessee” and are becoming “poverty pimps” by pushing a legislative package that does nothing but hurt the working men and women of our state.

In addition to workers advocates, representatives of firefighters also opposed this legislation on the grounds that it could allow for firefighters to be denied legitimate resulting from injuries suffered while protecting lives.
The legislation also passed the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee and will be heard in both the House and Senate Government Operations Committees next week.

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Featured Tax and Budget

Harwell: Widespread Hunger in TN House for Another Slice Off State’s Fat Grocery Tax

Lowering the sales tax on food, overhauling workers’ compensation, the possible expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee and school vouchers will likely be top topics for debate, state House Speaker Beth Harwell said Thursday when discussing the GOP’s 2013 legislative agenda.

“I’ll think we’ll make another move to lower the sales tax on food in the state,” the Nashville Republican said, pointing to Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to lower the tax bite to 5 percent — equal to about $9.60 less in taxes for a household in a year, based on average spending of $3,838 a year for groceries. State lawmakers cut the rate from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent this year.

“Workers’ comp is something the governor is probably going to have on his agenda,” Harwell said. “And we’ll see a lot of other legislation coming from individual members, I’m sure.”

Regardless of the issues, it’s all but certain that the GOP will have its way, with both the Senate and the House enjoying supermajorites — the ability to pass legislation without a single Democratic vote — and Republican Bill Haslam in the governor’s office.

“Our Republican caucus is as united as I’ve ever seen it,” Harwell said.

That’s not to say that Tennesseans won’t see some fireworks from Democrats. Issues such as school vouchers and charter schools will largely affect the state’s large urban areas that have strong Democratic control, and certainly Democrats will make a way to have their voice heard.

Harwell did not take a position on either vouchers or an expansion of Medicaid.

“The whole issue of vouchers is one that the legislature will spend a considerable amount of time debating and discussing,” Harwell said.

On Medicaid: “My first-blush reaction is that I’m not in favor of expansion. However, when you look at the numbers there is some justification financially as to why we might want to expand it.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert and at 615-669-9501.

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Business and Economy News

GOP Looks at Changes to Workers’ Comp, Regulatory Burdens

A handful of Tennessee Republicans are wrapping up their study of small businesses for the year, but they’re unsure how the fruits of their labor will turn into legislation in 2012.

At the direction of House GOP leaders, a task force of 10 representatives has spent the last four months meeting with business owners across the state to figure out what would make the Volunteer State’s business environment more attractive.

The House Republican Small Business and Economic Development Task Force, which met Monday for its final time this year, is recommending the caucus consider:

  • Enacting new tort reforms.
  • Modifying workers’ compensation to make it more competitive with neighboring states.
  • Focusing educational institutions on preparing students for in-demand jobs.
  • Reducing or eliminating business regulations.

The problem, according to Chairman Jimmy Matlock, is the suggestions are short on details.

“We’re, at this point, still in general terms,” said Matlock, R-Lenoir. “What we tried to do was listen to what business folks were asking from government. … We’re not really out there to throw a lot of legislation at this.

“I don’t think you’re going to see 50 new bills coming out. I think you’re going to see a few serious bills coming out of this.”

The task force was formed in July by House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick, who asked the lawmakers to identify regulations that impede job growth, study the best practices from other states and develop strategies to make the state’s business environment more attractive.

The task force will hand over its recommendations to McCormick in the next two weeks, said Matlock, although the panel may refine its recommendations as lawmakers head back to Nashville for the spring legislative session.

State leaders have made it their mission to probe Tennessee businesses about what they want out of state government after the dust settled from this year’s Legislative session.

Gov. Bill Haslam held a series of business roundtable discussions across the state this summer and is expected to build the recommendations into his legislative priorities next year. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is tackling much of the same issues in his “TN Red Tape” tours to talk to business owners about ways the government can lighten up on regulations.

And Democrats from both chambers have toured the state asking businesses what they want out of government as they draft their own ideas for job-creating bills to pitch next year.

Changes to how the state handles its unemployment system didn’t make the cut on the House GOP task force’s list of recommendations, Matlock said.

Some members, including Matlock, had echoed concerns they heard this fall from business owners that some claimants were running out their unemployment benefits instead of taking jobs. But the panel ultimately decided to stay away from recommending unemployment reforms.

Ramsey has been the most vocal about wanting changes to how the state polices people collecting unemployment benefits long-term and suggested the state build in requirements on jobless workers to prove they’re looking for work.

Haslam has said he’s heard similar rumors about people collecting unemployment benefits turning down jobs, and a U.S. Department of Labor report indicates Tennessee has overpaid those benefits to the tune of $311 million over three years.

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Business and Economy Featured

Ramsey Supports Cost-to-Business Estimates for Proposed Legislation

Tennessee House Republicans made a point Thursday of declaring their interest in identifying burdensome regulations they can lift from businesses in the state.

In the same vein, the Senate’s top lawmaker wants to add one on government: A requirement that bills under consideration in the General Assembly include an estimate of the costs they’d potentially have on Tennessee employers.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he wants legislators and the public to be fully aware of the price of new mandates and regulations before they’re passed on to the private sector.

“Right now we’re just ignoring it and putting it directly onto business,” the Blountville Republican said. “What does this cost a business when we pass a bill?

“In the long run, it will save the state money and save businesses money” to attempt to calculate those costs up front, he said.

The idea comes most recently from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, which released a report last week detailing why the state should crunch the numbers to determine what kind of effect legislation has on commerce and industry.

“Legislation impacts business, and lawmakers need to connect the dots on that,” said Justin Owen, TCPR’s executive director.

Democrats might not necessarily balk at the idea. But the key is making sure any system for estimating those costs is accurate, objective and avoids “garbage in, garbage out” results, said Craig Fitzhugh, the House minority leader.

The Ripley lawmaker, a banker by profession, says projections as to how legislation would affect businesses in Tennessee could indeed be useful in formulating policy. However, he’d like to see a system for doing it phased in over time to ensure the processes for collecting relevant data are reliable — and that the Office of Fiscal Review has sufficient extra staff to effectively handle the added workload.

“I would hate to start trying to do something like that and skimp on the resources and end up with some bad data that leads us to pass legislation or not pass legislation,” Fitzhugh said.

Legislators express mixed opinions about fiscal notes, the price tags that attempt to detail how much pending legislation will cost the state or yield in tax, fee or fine revenues. Those estimates can end up killing a bill if a substantial cost to government is projected — even as politicians at the Capitol often questioned the scope or accuracy of the calculations.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are spending the political off-season examining business regulations and methods for facilitating job growth as they approach the legislative session that begins in January.

The governor has spent his summer traveling the state looking for feedback and ideas about job growth. Meanwhile, House Republicans have begun meeting with small business owners to discuss their perceptions of problematic and unnecessary regulations at both the state and federal level in Tennessee, and Democrats from both chambers are embarking on a jobs tour later this month.

The biggest gripes from business owners center on regulations which they say are too stringent — such as the one the federal government sought to enforce when it raided Gibson Guitar Corp. in Nashville and Memphis last month for allegedly possessing illegally obtained wood from a foreign country.

While the state has control over only Tennessee regulations, Ramsey wants the federal government to account for its actions, which he says at this point appear to him a stark and possibly politically motivated example of regulatory abuse.