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Republicans flex muscle on workers’ comp

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Lawmakers heard nearly five hours of testimony Wednesday on the increasing expenses of workers’ comp at a hearing of the Assembly and Senate labor committees. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

State Republicans seem poised to make another end run around an advisory council whose recommendations on workers’ benefits were largely adopted without question.

At a hearing Wednesday of the Assembly and Senate labor committees, lawmakers heard nearly five hours of testimony concerning the ever-increasing expense of using disability benefits to treat workers who have been injured on the job. In a rare alliance, representative of business and labor interests said they are in favor of controlling the costs with the use of fee schedules, which set the amounts to be paid for specific procedures.

But in a return to form, the same people went on to say they disagree on a number of other proposed changes. The trouble for those on the labor side is that Republicans control not only the labor committees, but also the Senate, Assembly and governor’s office.

And at least one Republican at the hearing Wednesday said several of the business side’s proposed changes only make sense. State Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, pointed to one that would prohibit unemployment benefits from going to workers who test positive for drugs or alcohol. Pointing out that the council’s name contains the word “advisory,” he said he’s in favor of the proposal whether it’s recommended or not.

Many people have told me there was a time when the changes put forward by the advisory council were voted up or down without amendment by the Legislature. But many of the same people said the same thing about the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council, a similar independent body that proposes legislative reforms to the state’s unemployment-benefits system. That tradition of deference didn’t stop Republicans this year from ignoring the council’s advice and adopting a series of changes the council members had explicitly rejected.

To the proponents of the advisory council, the old way of conducting business had the merit of ensuring the state’s employment benefits policies were always the result of a compromise between business and labor interests.

More importantly, it kept those policies from swinging wildly from one extreme to another every time one party lost control of the statehouse and the other took over. Some of the Republicans I spoke to Wednesday assured me that if they passed anything over the objections of the Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council, they would take care to prevent the change from being a target for immediate repeal should their fortunes sour at the ballot box.

But maybe there is a deeper calculation going on here. Maybe, just maybe, Republicans think they have the statehouse so sewn up following the 2011 redrawing of legislative districts that any changes they make will be long forgotten in that far-distant future time when Democrats can even hope to return to power.

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