WSIA's 2018 Legislative Preview
Jan. 5, 2018
The Washington State Legislature returns to Olympia this coming Monday, January 8th, for a 60-day session.
The balance of political power has changed in the Legislature as a result of last fall's special election in the suburbs east of Seattle. Whereas the last few years have involved divided government between a Democratic controlled House of Representatives and a Republican controlled Senate, now the Democratic party is in control of both chambers. Although the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate are slim, two and one votes respectively, unified control nevertheless will ease passage of many key priorities of the party and its supporters.
Big Picture Issues
The primary issue in an even-year, 60-day session is always to make supplemental adjustments to the state's operating budget, passed the prior year.
Because last year's state operating budget was dominated by education funding concerns, and a controversial property tax adjustment to help fund education, both issues will be back front and center in 2018.
In addition, Governor Jay Inslee and some in the Legislature have signaled their intent to pursue new taxes in the area of capital gains, a form of income tax, as well as a tax on carbon emissions meant to curb pollution. At the same time, other Democratic leaders have suggested that both big issues would be too heavy a lift for a short session.
The Legislature adjourned in 2017 without passing a $4 billion capital construction budget, because it got held up in a heated dispute over a Supreme Court decision impacting water rights in rural areas. Indeed, the fight over water rights, the "Hirst" issue named for the court case, became one of the defining battles of the 2017 session, stealing oxygen from just about every other issue, and the heat has not died down in 2018. But with unified control of the Legislature, expect Democrats to be able to move forward on a capital budget, with both sides looking for renewed compromise on the water rights issue.
New political control of the Senate brings with it a new key policy committee -- the Labor & Commerce Committee, which replaces the former Commerce, Labor & Sports Committee under Republicans -- and a new committee chair, Senator Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines.
It also brings before the committee a lot of pent up issues that had not received much movement in the Senate in the last several years, ranging from legislation on pay equity between the genders, restrictions on non-competition agreements, increased anti-retaliation and "wage theft" protections, restrictions on overtime and scheduling, and newer issues such as prohibiting non-disclosure of sexual harassment matters in the workplace.
Workers' Comp & Safety
For workers' compensation and safety, the shift in legislative power will put an increased focus toward compromise on bills that are primarily defensive for employers. It will not be an era where systemic reform proposals of the past years, from occupational disease to structured settlements to wage simplification and benefit accuracy, will receive much attention or traction.
Rather, we know that we will be working on proposals such as these:
- Stress-based occupational disease claims for first responders. First aired last session, a proposal to allow first responders to make stress-based occupational disease claims, with post-traumatic stress disorder being presumed to be an occupational disease, will be in the mix. The bill last session was HB 1655.
- Expanded occupational disease presumptions for first responders. A bill will receive attention to add to the list of cancers and infections in the existing firefighter occupational disease presumption, add fire investigators to the coverage of the presumption, and create cardio-respiratory and infection presumptions for law enforcement officers. The bill last session was SB 5477.
- Occupational disease presumptions for Hanford nuclear site workers. Again first aired last session, a proposal is picking up legs to create a broad lifetime presumption of occupational disease for a very substantial list of conditions for a large population of workers who have spent as little as one day's shift at certain areas of the nuclear site. This will be the first workers' comp bill heard in the 2018 session, with a public hearing on an amended version of last year's bill already set for hearing on Wednesday, January 10th in the new Senate committee. The bill last year was SB 5940, and the amendment is here.
- Independent Medical Examinations. Although no bill language has been made public, a concept has been floated to require self-insured employers to provide medical records to an IME provider either electronically or, if not electronically, within ten business days prior to the scheduled IME. The proposal apparently follows concerns raised by IME providers about difficulty with timely access to self-insured records, as opposed to the electronic access to State Fund records that exists through the Claimant Account Center platform.
- WISHA penalties. The Department of Labor & Industries is expected to press for its bill from last session that would extend maximum and minimum penalties under the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act (WISHA) to conform to federal OSHA levels. The measure is contended to be necessary for Washington to maintain its state plan designation, although with OSHA administration in some state of flux at the national level, it's not at all clear what the sense of urgency is here. The bill from last year is SB 5460.
- Pension Discount Rate. The Department has a placeholder in its legislative agenda to propose a bill that would authorize it to compute the pension reserve funding requirements of State Fund and self-insured pensions differently, in order to allow the State Fund to use a pension discount rate different than what it may use for self-insured pensions. While bill language hasn't been finalized yet, WSIA has been supportive of the concept. L&I's explanation for why it is seeking the change can be found in this briefing paper. If the Department, which intends to reduce its pension discount rate aggressively over the next couple years, were to continue to tie that same computations for self-insured pensions, it would result in substantial up-front costs to current pensions as well as the Second Injury Fund. This proposal, if enacted, would provide legal authorization to step down the discount rate on self-insured and Second Injury Fund pensions on a more gradual basis.
These are what we believe will be the top issues over the next 60 days. Other workers' comp and safety issues have a way of popping up as well, from perennial efforts to limit the social security offset against time loss benefits to restrictions on benefits for workers intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. We monitor all of these proposals during the session, inform lawmakers as to WSIA's interest and position in them, and advocate for and against bills depending upon our positions as determined by our legislative committee and Board of Directors.
So stay tuned. WSIA members who opt-in to our Legislative Committee e-mail list can follow the action most closely, with weekly updated bill tracking sheets and summaries of that week's action starting next Friday. Contact WSIA's Kris Tefft for details.