A measure hailed as historic by the state's largest business group in its overhaul of Oklahoma's workers' compensation system is one legislative vote away from heading to the governor for final approval.
Despite Democrats' warning that the measure was unfair to injured workers because it would reduce their benefits, not one member of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives strayed Wednesday from their leadership's position of supporting it. Senate Bill 1062 passed 74-24; four Democrats voted for it.
“It's going to work for the workers,” said Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, who presented the bill and answered questions for about three hours. “We want to get the injured workers fixed.”
Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, complained that the 284-page rewrite of SB 1062 was filed Monday night as an amendment and violated House rules because it replaced all sections of the original version. Speaker Pro Tem Mike Jackson, R-Enid, determined that two sections, although renumbered, remained in the legislation.
The House voted 68-27 to accept the revision. Osborn then used a parliamentary procedure to advance the bill without any of the 14 remaining amendments filed by Democrats being heard.
“Why not let the legislative process work?” asked a frustrated Morrissette.
Democrats also were without Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, who was summoned off the House floor earlier in the day after his mother was injured in a traffic accident. She was being treated for burns late Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Inman said.
Bill returns to Senate
SB 1062, part of three major pieces of legislation that GOP legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin agreed to earlier this week, goes back to the Senate. Fallin has said she would sign the measure along with House Bill 2032, which reduces the top personal income tax rate in 2015 and possibly again the next year, and HB 1910, which develops a plan to maintain and repair state properties and buildings. The Senate passed those measures Wednesday; both return to the House for final legislative approval.
SB 1062 would change the workers' compensation system from a judicial system to an administrative one. It also would allow businesses to opt out of the workers' compensation system as long as they provide equivalent benefits to injured workers.
Oklahoma is one of two states still using a court system. Osborn said the change should reduce the adversarial nature of the system as well as reduce the time needed to process claims.
Morrissette said small companies would see their workers' compensation insurance rates increase because bigger companies would choose to opt out of being in the state system.
“You, the small business owners, are getting the shaft on this one,” he said.
Osborn said rates shouldn't increase for small businesses because many of the larger companies now are self-insured. After SB 1062 becomes law, the state insurance commissioner would develop guidelines and safeguards that businesses would have to follow to be self-insured, she said.
Oklahoma has the sixth-highest workers' compensation rates in the nation for employers, which is a major deterrent to businesses operating in the state, Osborn said. The administrative system should lower those rates, she said.
”We are losing jobs because our rates are too high,” she said.
Oklahoma should see enough savings of having its 35,000 employees in the administrative system to at least equal the projected $1.5 million increase in operating costs, she said. Lawmakers allocated about $4.2 million to the workers' compensation court this fiscal year.
Rep. Ben Sherrer, D-Chouteau, said he talks often with the retired director of a large business park in Pryor and he was told no businesses ask about workers' compensation rates, but want to know about incentives, water and power rates. They're most concerned about public schools, he said.
Fred Morgan, president of The State Chamber, said SB 1062 is one of the most important pro-business bills passed in the history of Oklahoma.
“Moving to an administrative system will help reduce out-of-control costs, while improving the process and experience within the system for the employer and employee alike,” he said.
Current judges would be retained
The workers' compensation system now has 10 workers' compensation judges. Each judge hears disputed workers' compensation issues, which may be resolved informally at a prehearing or settlement conference, or by a trial. Written orders of the trial judge are final unless appealed to a three-judge review panel of the workers' compensation court, or to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Under SB 1062, three commissioners would be appointed to the administrative commission, Osborn said.
Commissioners would hire administrative law judges, and Osborn said the 10 current judges would be retained as administrative law judges. Several would work on existing claims in a court of existing claims and the others would deal with claims filed after Feb. 1, when most of the legislation would take effect. Other parts of the bill take effect in late August.
Rep. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, questioned the additional expense of the new system, but Osborn said the revised measure does away with the proposal of running both systems for 20 years. Instead, there would be one staff, she said, with the commissioners overseeing the caseload of the administrative law judges.
During questioning, Osborn, who was standing, turned often for assistance from Reps. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, and Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, who moved to sit at the desk of her and her seatmate. They were all part of a group appointed by House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, to review the legislation and helped with revisions.
Rep. Ken Walker, R-Tulsa, praised the work of the group, and criticized Democrats for not meeting with the panel, which consisted of all Republicans.
Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said she and other House Democrats would have liked to have met with the working group, “but I don't think we were invited.”