WHAT OTHERS SAY: Senate forges compromise in passing workers' comp fix

Monday, February 18, 2013 | 12:03 p.m. CST

Last week, the Missouri Senate worked.

That’s an odd statement coming from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board. To realize how odd would require reading through literally thousands of column inches about how dysfunctional the entire Missouri Capitol has been over the last few years. There are a lot of reasons — term limits, gerrymandered districts, campaign money gone wild, bitter tea brewed by extremists.

But last week, the Senate went old school. It passed a very complicated bill that has vexed the chamber for years. If the bill, Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, becomes law, it could fix the insolvent Second Injury Fund. It will at the very least pay those injured workers — 713 of them with literally thousands more in the court pipeline — who have been holding judgments worth $28 million that the state of Missouri has been ignoring.

It will protect businesses facing civil lawsuits from victims of toxic exposure at their manufacturing plants, while still making sure that those employees who have been injured, or the widows of those who have died, receive something approaching just compensation.

The bill passed 32-2, with only two Democrats voting against it.

How did this happen? To use what has become a dirty word, it was compromise.

Mr. Rupp quietly rounded up support at the retail level, meeting individually with fellow Republican senators and Democrats such as Scott Sifton of Affton and Gina Walsh of Bellefontaine Neighbors. The final bill was fair to both workers and business. As the Senate’s senior member, Mr. Rupp was given much latitude to craft a compromise by Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, the president pro tem of the Senate.

“The perfect bill is just never going to happen,” Mr. Rupp said.

The holdup for each of the last few years has been less about the pursuit of perfection, and more about the inability for lawmakers and special interests to accept the concept of compromise.

Two separate issues in the bill pitted Republicans against Democrats, mostly through their special interest proxies, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys. Both were related to problems Republicans created in 2005 in an attempt to reduce workers’ compensation costs for businesses.

The 2005 bill set a cap on the Second Injury Fund — which encourages businesses to hire workers, such as military veterans, previously injured in workplace injuries but who still have a value to offer employers. The fund, paid for by a surcharge on businesses, protects employers from having to pay for injuries sustained that their companies had nothing to do with.

The cap bankrupted the fund, leaving injured workers in the cold and taxpayers on the hook. But Republicans, until this year, refused to raise the cap, choosing to ignore findings from independent accountants and both Republican and Democratic state auditors.

The other mistake in the 2005 law removed a certain type of injury — toxic exposure cases — from the workers’ compensation system. This opened businesses up to much more liability in civil courts.

Toxic exposure includes nasty diseases caused by certain chemical exposure in manufacturing — mesothelioma is the most well-known — that often lead to death. Republicans and Democrats had been unable to agree on a fair level of compensation in such cases.

Mr. Rupp’s bill doubles the surcharge on the Second Injury Fund, raising money to ease the backlog of hundreds of cases in which truly injured workers have not been paid for their legitimate disabilities.

It also creates a special category of toxic exposure cases under the Second Injury Fund that allows significantly more compensation for the relatives of victims who died after inhaling dangerous chemicals at work. At the same time, the bill protects employers from uncapped and more expensive civil court judgments.

Nobody got everything he wanted. But a serious problem confronting businesses, workers and the state treasury was solved by everybody coming to the table and giving a little. What a concept.

Alas, on the same day the Senate was coming together in the spirit of compromise to solve a real problem, across the Capitol rotunda, the Missouri House was up to its usual tilting at imaginary windmills. The House passed a photo voter-identification bill that attempts to solve a nonexistent problem by denying tens of thousands of Missourians their right to vote.

OK, so maybe it’s too much to wish that the entire building act like grown-ups.

But the Missouri Senate and its Republican leaders deserve kudos for finally finding a way to navigate a vexing and important issue by forging compromise rather than fomenting dissent.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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