Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Citizen Lobbyist Training attracts scores

And, do Workers’ Comp COLA estimators smoke crack?

We staged our Citizen Lobbyist Training at the Plains Hotel today. It’s a one-day short-course we offer every year to explain the legislature’s elegant and sometimes complex process and describe at least some of the human motivations that drive it.
Nearly 70 people registered for the training, close to record participation. Our own Sarah Gorin explained how a bill becomes law and noted some of the myths about our “citizen legislature.” Suzan Pauling of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault dispelled fears of involvement with tales of her own steps and missteps as a novice lobbyist.
Marcia Shanor detailed the challenges of testifying before a legislative committee. Like Pauling, her talk was salted with practical advice, like getting to committee hearings early if you want a chair in one of those tiny committee rooms, dressing well, and staying aware of your own demeanor while other people talk.

Former Sweetwater state Sen. Rae Lynn Job and five sitting legislators, including Reps. Bernadine Craft, Tom Lubnau, Jeb Steward, Mary Throne and Sen. John Schiffer, offered perspectives on their own motivations for serving in the legislature, the best methods for lobbying them, and looked to challenges ahead. Sen. Schiffer suggested balancing the state budget won’t be a problem. Dealing with big issues facing Wyoming residents, like health care, is a greater problem, Schiffer said.
Positive responses from many of the participants have stirred thoughts at the ESPC of trying to conduct similar training sessions in a few communities around the state in an effort to connect Wyoming’s far-flung residents with the important doings here in Cheyenne.

Actuaries on drugs???

The House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee lost no time in picking up a critical bill on Wyoming’s Workers’ Compensation program. House Bill 54 – Workers’ compensation amendments contains the first increases in benefits for injured workers since the early 1990s.
We support the bill. It includes a significant hike in death benefits paid to surviving dependents, eliminates the gap between the shut-off of Temporary Total Disability payments and the payment of permanent benefits, and for the first time gives cost-of-living-adjustments (COLA) to beneficiaries. The bill is the product of considerable interim work by the joint committee in 2008. Changes in the make-up of the committee have brought four new members, however, who did not participate in the interim work.
The new members did not have the chance to hear the many injured workers who testified at a hearing in Casper in June. Those workers expressed considerable frustration with the administration of the program and its treatment of them. They also pointed out many problems with the way it pays out benefits that have left many of them devastated economically, losing homes, cars, and sometimes marriages.
The bill comes with a fiscal note that estimates the increased benefits carry an annual cost between $11 million and $12 million. But Cheyenne attorney George Santini challenged the $3.5 million annual price tag the note puts on the COLA for recipients of Permanent Total Disability payments.

"Simple arithmetic reveals that for a 5% COLA to reach $20,000, an injured worker would have to receive benefits of $400,000 yearly. Workers’ Comp benefits are not that good."

The estimators had to have been “smoking crack,” he said. He noted that only 184 people receive PTD benefits from the Wyoming program. A COLA that costs $3.5 million a year would mean each person’s benefit would be increased by about $20,000, a number he said challenges reason.
Most COLAs are in a range of 3% to 5% annually, Santini said. Simple arithmetic reveals that for a 5% COLA to reach $20,000, an injured worker would have to receive benefits of $400,000 yearly. Workers’ Comp benefits are not that good.
Committee Chairman Jack Landon of Sheridan asked Workers’ Compensation Division administrators to supply an explanation of the $3.5 million estimate of COLA costs. None of the Worker’s Comp honchos denied Santini’s “smoking crack” charge One said he did not know exactly how the division’s actuary calculated them.
Ultimately, the numbers show that the Workers’ Comp fund holds the money needed to provide the benefits, which may be considerably less than indicated by the fiscal note on the bill.
There’s a question of fairness, too. Employers recently got a 15% premium credit that saved them nearly $40 million. There was little or no debate of that cost to the fund. It’s time injured workers got their due.
There was minimal opposition to the measure. Tom Jones, a former legislator who lobbies for the National Federation of Independent Business, expressed concern about the impact of the COLAs on the long-term health of the fund. Coal industry lobbyist Marion Loomis backed the bill, though he also asked the committee to look hard at the impact of the COLAs. No other industry lobbyists commented on the bill.
Kim Floyd of the AFL-CIO, Jon Narva of the Federated Fire Fighters of Wyoming, and Mark Aronowitz, an attorney with the Spence Law Firm’s nonprofit arm, joined Santini in support of the bill.
The ESPC likewise backed the bill but called for additional language that would make clear to the division administrators that the primary purpose of the program is not controlling its costs. The legislature should tell the division to focus first on restoring injured workers to productive life as quickly as possible and provide adequate indemnity benefits to permanently disabled workers. Cost control should be secondary. The cost of the program, as Floyd said, should not be forced on injured workers by paying them inadequate benefits.
No one should go broke because they went to work one day and got hurt.