Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Freshman Texans and Boneheaded Proposals

I've hailed Texas as a low cost workers' compensation state where insurance companies actually make an underwriting profit due to the competitive nature of the market in the subscription-optional state.

Now some freshman lawmakers want to demonstrate the political football that workers' compensation becomes in negotiations despite the state's success, and want to show just how low they can kick the injured worker.

Pitching a budget deal that favors pension reform, 11 freshman lawmakers introduced more than 30 amendments to a general appropriations bill that would eliminate or significantly reduce various state agencies and programs.

One of them is State Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth) who wants to eliminate $8.2 million of yearly funding from the Office of Injured Employee Counsel (OIEC), which helps unrepresented injured workers navigate the workers' compensation system.

In past fights OIEC argued, correctly, that "a reduction in OIEC's funding would not save the State of Texas any money" because "it would reduce the maintenance tax levied on workers' compensation insurance companies." In 2010, the OIEC noted that it is administratively attached to TDI and does not receive funding for consumables, facilities or other items.

"The Texas Legislature appropriates funds from a general revenue dedicated account to agencies that participate in or contribute to the regulation of insurance, prevention of insurance loss, and administration of workers' compensation," the OIEC wrote. "OIEC is funded by this dedicated account within the same operating account as TDI. Both the Texas Insurance Code and Texas Labor Code require that maintenance taxes levied against insurance companies be set with the intention of collecting the revenue needed to fund authorized expenditures from this account."

Texas isn't the most generous workers' compensation states around, nor is it the least beneficial. But for that class of workers whose injuries and consequential disabilities don't attract private counsel, OIEC is absolutely necessary.

And, I would argue that OIEC actually saves employers money by providing timely, relevant counsel. Workers' compensation is a complex system. The sooner an injured worker is able to access the system, attain necessary treatment while still paying the bills, the sooner that person is going to return to work lowering the impact on the employer's experience.

Slashing the funding of OIEC is either a misguided, shortsighted "statement" or it is just a plain mean-spirited stab at the working class.

The likelihood that this legislation makes it to the governor's desk for signature is probably low. This maneuver is a way for rookie lawmakers to make a name for themselves by getting heard on budget issues.

Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, told the Texas Tribune that the freshman lawmakers are looking for a way to have more of a say in the budget process. Perry said he suggested that the rookie lawmakers consider targeting unfunded liabilities such as the TRS-Care, and to target it in the budget amendment process.

"It's how, if you're not on the Appropriations Committee, you can have your voice heard," he said.

But Perry should have counseled Goldman and these other rookies a bit more to pick on something they understand and that makes sense.

It's one thing to make a name for oneself and to get heard.

It's another to propose something boneheaded and construct a reputation for making law that isn't well researched or well thought out.

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