You'd think the Oklahoma Senate would want its members to have enough time to read the bill.
But the 260-page monstrosity that would remake Oklahoma's workers' compensation system landed in Sen. Tom Ivester's inbox one day before he was supposed to cast an informed vote on it.
As a lawyer, the Sayre Democrat is hardly a novice when it comes to wading through legalese. But still ... less than a day to read -- much less seriously analyze -- 260 pages of statutory gobbledygook?
"I could guarantee you," he said, "there weren't two people on that committee who had read it or even tried to read it."
The result was utterly predictable (and foreordained): The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the corporate Powers-That-Be-backed plan along strict party lines -- the eight Republicans voting aye, the two Democrats nay.
No in-depth questions posed about whether workers hurt on the job would receive a fair shake. Or whether the new plan advantages employers. Or whether it would ensure less costly workers comp insurance premiums.
Or even consideration of the most fundamental question: is our longtime system so badly broken that it can't be fixed?
Oh, august deliberative body, where art thou?
I know: Mere mention of the phrase "workers' compensation" causes eyes to glaze over. But this is one of those times when you must resist the temptation to toss the paper onto the coffee table and tune into Downton Abbey or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
The fact is, we live in a state where many of our neighbors -- and relatives -- work frightfully dangerous jobs. Think: injuries and deaths in the oil patch, on the farm or in the meat packing plant, just to cite a few of the riskier occupations where heavy machinery and humans spend considerable time together.
Shouldn't we expect our lawmakers -- among the highest paid in America -- to thoroughly, publicly debate major proposed changes in a system so vital to the personal and financial well being of both employers and employees?
Of course. But that doesn't always happen in politics, where money talks and bullshit walks.
The deep pockets and their lackeys at the State Chamber don't think the playing field is sufficiently tilted in their favor? Legislative leaders stand at the ready to give their largest campaign contributors what they want.
Thus, the heavy-handedness of unveiling a 260-page bill one day and demanding a committee vote the next.
Even so, you need to know this isn't entirely a stereotypical battle of Republicans carrying water for their corporate benefactors and Democrats watching out for the working stiffs.
Believe it or not, both parties concede there are problems with the current workers compensation system.
Whoa. Wait a minute ...
Didn't we fix that two years ago?
Yep. It was 2011 when Gov. Mary Fallin and the GOP's legislative majority were dancing in the Capitol's marbled halls over passage of what they hailed as a workers' compensation reform package to end all workers' compensation reform packages.
Oklahoma, they crowed, was officially open for bidness, unshackled from runaway workers comp costs.
It's more than a little curious, isn't it, that the 2011 legislative handiwork hasn't even had time to fully kick in, yet legislative Republicans and the governor are fast-tracking this year's throw the baby out with the bathwater approach?
Under the plan bearing Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman's name, the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Court would be dismantled and replaced by an administrative system modeled after Arkansas.
Why Arkansas? It makes sense if you consider who's driving this latest "reform" effort. It isn't, as you might suspect, Devon, Chesapeake, and the major oil and gas harvesters. It's the big box retailers that can't be bothered with ungrateful slackers injured on the job.
Hmmmm. Which big box retailer is headquartered in Arkansas, where payments to injured workers are now 20 percent less than in Oklahoma?
Can you spell W-a-l-m-a-r-t?
As one state Capitol lobbyist put it, workers' comp "reform" is "a never ending loop."
Bingman, for example, now dismisses the 2011 package as "nibbling around the edges," asserting that "we have to put the brakes on our runaway workers' compensation system if we are serious about growing our state's economy."
Where have we heard that before? Oh, yeah, just about every time the GOP leadership presses for a proposal that benefits the one percent (think, for example, income taxes that disproportionately benefit the state's wealthiest residents).
Fallin, meanwhile, is turning more backflips than an Olympic gymnast. Two years ago, she sided with her own workers' compensation reform panel in opposition to an administrative system. Now, she thinks the idea is dandy.
It "will help us reduce the adversarial relationship that we have in our workers' compensation system itself," she told an Oklahoma City Chamber breakfast. "And I think that will be what will lead to a system that will be fair to the injured workers, fair to the employers, and help us create a stronger and more vibrant economy."
Touching, isn't it? Until you consider that the Arkansas system she now embraces pays out something on the order of 20 percent less to injured workers than Oklahoma's system.
So what would the "reform" package ensure -- besides smaller payouts to injured workers?
It would definitely tighten the screws on two key Democratic constituencies: trial lawyers and unions.
If you cut off their money, you cut off their ability to play the political game. And you bolster the GOP's grip on state political power.
What, though, would it do to help employers, particularly small businesses?
"All employers want [workers' comp] premium costs dropped," says Sen. Ivester. "But insurance companies are giving absolutely no guarantees the premiums are going to drop."
So insurance companies are likely to continue to charge the same -- or higher -- rates, but will end up paying out less money to injured workers.
"The big winners," Ivester says, "are the insurance companies."
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