West Virginia State Senator Clark S. Barnes (R-Randolph) sees the Senate’s version of the Workers’ Compensation Reform bill, as too weak, calling it a “temporary patch,” and looks forward to the final product, which may go to a conference committee in the coming days. Barnes voted against the Senate version for the following reasons:
“I strongly support reform of the Workers’ Compensation System,” said Barnes. “I believe a strong Workers’ Compensation program is vital to the health and safety of every worker as well as the strength and the protection of employers.”
Barnes, as well as most West Virginians, knows the system is bankrupt and he is concerned about its doubtful future.
“The bill we are working on is not a fix, but instead should be the foundation,” said Barnes.
He supports the privatization of the Workers’ compensation program as an alternative to the many years of poor decisions and weak management practices. Barnes said state management and those in control have allowed the Workers’ compensation system to be used for political leverage.
According to Barnes, Greg Burton, the Executive Director of Worker’s Compensation has done a tremendous job of providing a more conservative management style; however, Barnes believes the Legislature isn’t addressing the really tough issues.
“We’re continuing to put a band-aid on a problem that requires a tourniquet,” said Barnes.
One of the many problems Barnes has with the Senate’s version of the workers’ comp bill is a funding mechanism. Among the funds being drawn out to address the financial requirements of the bill are $45 million in excess lottery money. These funds are presently being used for infrastructure improvements, such as sewer and water projects.
“Not only are we removing a vital asset to economic development, but also those funds are dollars which are bringing in as much as two and three to one in matching federal funds. We’re not just losing $45 million, we’re losing $90-$100 million for these projects,” said Barnes. “Why decimate a strong economic development tool for the sake of strengthening another? This just does not make good business sense.”
Another problem Barnes has with the Senate’s version of the bill is that Worker’s Compensation is projecting that premiums could be reduced by approximately 15 percent, but even with those reductions, counties that border Virginia will be paying rates that would average three to four times higher than the rates of similar companies across the state line.
“We still are not addressing the liberality of benefits within the program, even if it’s privatized. I doubt there is any major insurance carrier in this country that will be willing to take on a private worker’s compensation program at our present level of benefits,” said Barnes.
Barnes also does not approve of the major hike in the timber severance tax the Senate legislation has included.
“Most of this increase will be placed squarely on the shoulders of small, family owned timber tracts and small businesses,” said Barnes. “The projected reduction in premiums paid to Workers’ Compensation by these companies will be far below the increase in their taxes.”
Barnes said the severance taxes paid by coal being used to power electric utilities and the gas utilities will immediately be passed on to the consumer. There are specific provisions within the legislation which will permit utility companies to immediately petition the Public Service Commission for an increase in rates.
“Those rate increases will be passed on to every senior citizen, every worker struggling to make ends meet, every business, small or large, trying to stay profitable in West Virginia,” said Barnes.
Barnes stressed that even though the Senate bill passed without his support, his hope is that the final version of the measure will continue to be addressed and a more effective consensus will be reached.