By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After defeating several attempts by Democrats to dial back the proposal, the House on Thursday approved Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill to change the way the state considers injured workers’ claims.
The chamber voted 68-24, almost entirely along party lines, to approve the bill (SB200). The Senate would have to agree to minor changes before the measure can head for the governor’s signature.
A major feature of the measure is that it would remove workers’ compensation cases from the state’s trial courts and instead create special panels appointed by the governor to hear claims and appeals.
Democrats noted that the bill would grant all the power over the system to the executive branch without input or oversight from the Legislature.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville derided the new system as a “Tennessee kangaroo court,” and offered a symbolic amendment to simply do away with the state’s workers’ compensation program altogether. It failed overwhelmingly.
Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, said the changes will jumpstart workers claims, removing uncertainty from both them and their employers.
“The process for resolving any disputes that they have will be streamlined, allowing these injured workers to receive compensation and return back to work or the classroom quicker,” said Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland.
“The employee will no longer have to go for such a long time without salary replacement while his or her case works its way through the court system,” he said.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, argued that the maximum allowable compensation under the bill would fall below the average benefits under the current law. And fellow Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville questioned whether speeding up the process would be beneficial to injured workers.
“If the money is not enough to live on, (even) if you get it quicker, I don’t understand how that’s going to benefit the family,” she said.
Republican Rep. Jon Lundberg of Bristol said that the changes would bring the state into line with most of the states bordering Tennessee.
“We have a disincentive for businesses to come to Tennessee,” Lundberg said. “This helps level that playing field. Frankly I think this will put more workers to work.”
Brooks said changes are projected to cause a reduction in workers’ compensation insurance premiums for companies, though he acknowledged that the bill doesn’t address the costs of medical care.
Democrats said that proves that the savings will be derived from the decreased benefits.
“There’s only two ways to stop the costs of thing going up and saving money for small businesspeople,” Turner said. “That’s cutting the medical or taking the money away from the worker.”
“We’re taking money out of the worker’s pocket,” he said.
In the end, all of the votes in favor of the bill came from Republicans plus Democratic Rep. Charles Curtiss of Sparta. All of the votes against the measure were cast by Democrats, who were joined by independent Rep. Kent Williams of Elizabethton.