Governor Jerry Brown signed workers comp legislation yesterday that he was able to steer through the legislature at the end of the session in a display of skillful political leadership. The reform is projected to increase cash benefits for permanently injured workers while at the same time tighten rules and save costs for employers.
Comprised of legislation that both major parties consider a victory – a refreshing result coming out of Sacramento.
The workers comp compromise comes nearly a decade after the intense battle to reform the system of which I was a part. The Small Business Action Committee carried the workers’ comp initiative in 2004 embraced by Governor Schwarzenegger. He used our initiative to successfully convince legislators to come to the table and reach an accord over his workers comp bill.
The saga of that workers comp battle made for a dramatic enough story that reporter and fellow Fox and Hounds blogger, Joe Mathews, included an entire chapter on it in his book, The People’s Machine, about Schwarzenegger’s recall campaign victory and his first term in office.
Mathews covered all the back-and-forth of the negotiations, headed by the governor’s team of Moira Topp and Cynthia Bryant, as well as the effort to limit the initiative field to just one measure when different groups were maneuvering to file different reform plans.
As Mathews wrote, “Although Schwarzenegger had no official role in the Fox initiative, the governor had come to see workers’ comp as a symbol of the dysfunction that had robbed the state of its promise. He saw an initiative as the way to force the legislature to make changes.”
The solution worked after intense negotiations with others also seeking to pursue the initiative route. With only one initiative in the field, the governor was able to press the legislature for change. As Mathews reports, one of the leading negotiators for the union side wrote to legislators, “the bill has to be viewed in the context of the pending initiative” which many of the legislators did not like.
From the business side, the out-of-control costs were preventing job growth and encouraging out-of-state business recruiters, who ran ads in California business journals pointing out low workers comp rates in their states.
The 2004 workers comp reform saved many California businesses.
Governor Brown avoided similar dramatics in securing support for the bill, which was passed with bi-partisan votes.
When the Schwarzenegger measure passed, the governor said he would amend the bill if it did not treat workers fairly and still protect business. He would probably approve of this new legislation. Many of his former supporters from a decade ago have given the Brown compromise measure a thumbs up.
Why the legislature has been able to work out a deal twice in one decade on the contentious workers comp issue while letting other issues flounder is anyone’s guess.
However, Governor Brown deserves credit for making this compromise happen.