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Workers comp bill shows value of compromise

  • Published Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011, at 7:23 a.m.

As 2011 winds down, those of us at the Kansas Chamber ready ourselves for the upcoming 2012 legislative session, specifically its impact on Kansas businesses. In spite of the politics that divide our country and our wonderful state, we look ahead with confidence that Kansas can become the best state in the nation to do business.

The accomplishments of the last legislative session fuel this optimism. Key among them: passing the most comprehensive workers compensation reform bill in nearly 20 years. Both chambers of the Kansas Legislature unanimously passed this critical bill on the final day of the 2011 session.

How did this miracle happen? In a word: compromise.

A coalition of business organizations participated in a Kansas Chamber-led process of negotiations between groups that rarely see eye-to-eye: business, labor and trial attorneys. The result was House Bill 2134.

Supporters included 26 business organizations and trade associations, the AFL-CIO and Kansas Association for Justice. It was the first attempt at significant work comp reform since 1993.

House Bill 2134 was introduced with the full support of business and labor. That’s an important distinction. Compromise before the legislative session begins rarely happens. Compromise during the legislative process almost always takes place in the final hours, when both parties feel like they’ve already given up too much.

In this case, both sides of the work comp argument knew the system was broken. Both needed relief. The threshold of entry had become eroded so injuries not arising from work – such as those by the natural aging process – were compensable under a work comp policy instead of one’s health insurance.

HB 2134 established a new Prevailing Factor test that ensures the workplace incident must be the prevailing cause of the injury or impairment. Several Kansas Supreme Court decisions made significant adverse impacts on the work comp system – on both sides. Those court decisions have been fixed – for both sides.

Business and labor groups also acknowledged that increases in the benefit caps were overdue. Permanent partial and permanent total caps increased by $30,000. In the unfortunate circumstance where a worker dies on the job, the benefit increased by $50,000.

With a new administration, the easy tactic would have been to jam a bill through the Legislature that only fixed the problems employers faced, forcing legislators to pick winners and losers. Instead, attorneys representing business and labor worked diligently to come up with a mutually agreeable solution.

House Bill 2134 showed that even in an era of division and hard-nosed negotiating, strong leaders find common ground – and build upon it.

Across Kansas, businesses large and small, expect no less.

Kent Beisner is president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber. Contact him at kentb@kansaschamber.org or 785-357-6321.

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