Legislative roundup: Senate bill discussion gets testy

By Michelle Dupler, Herald staff writerMarch 13, 2009 

OLYMPIA -- Debate over changes to an optional industrial insurance program got personal Thursday as Republicans slung allegations that Democrats had introduced the bill as a means of payback.

Senate Bill 6035 would require groups participating in the state's Retrospective Ratings Program, known as Retro, to report how they spend money paid by employers.

The bill passed the Senate on a vote of 25-24, minutes before a 5 p.m. deadline to pass bills in the house of origin. It next goes to the House for consideration.

The program allows businesses to voluntarily pool their industrial insurance premiums and share risk for workers' compensation claims. If more money is paid in by businesses than is paid out for claims, Retro groups get a refund from the Department of Labor and Industries.

Republicans claimed the bill was an attack against political activities by the Building Industry Association of Washington, which often endorses Republican candidates over Democrats in elections, including unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi.

Thomas Kwieciak, administrator of the BIAW's insurance programs, called the bill a "blatant attack on free speech," in a recent meeting with the Herald's editorial board.

Of the 40-some Retro programs in the state, BIAW has the largest, Kwieciak said, and some of the money the trade association keeps from refunds goes toward political activity.

"Once that check leaves their hands there can't be strings attached," he said.

BIAW's Retro group has about 6,000 member companies, Kwieciak said, and the association has received $3 million to $4 million of the refunds in each of the past few years.

Republican opponents of the bill argued that the Retro groups should be able to use refund money as they wish, and that the state should not interfere in what is a voluntary, private contract between employers and the Retro groups.

"The point I want to make today is that I didn't come to the Legislature to get into private policy," said Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, who has participated in the Retro program as a small-business owner. "The Legislature does not belong in private businesses. This is a contract between one person and another knowing full well what goes on."

But Democrats countered that the bill was intended to bring transparency to the system in light of a computer coding error that cost the state untold millions in overstated refunds to the Retro pool.

Representatives for the Department of Labor and Industries told the Senate Labor, Commerce and Commercial Protection Committee in February that they are working to determine the extent of overstated refunds and consulting with the attorney general about possible legal recourse.

Also Thursday:

* A bill criticized by some sportsmen's groups for its proposal to change the structure of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission passed the Senate 33-15.

Senate bill 5127, sponsored by Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, would reduce the number of wildlife commissioners from nine to seven and transfer fish and wildlife management and rule-making authority from the commission to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It also would authorize the governor to appoint the commission chairman and vice chairman and require that all appointees to the commission and the department director be confirmed by the Senate during the first full legislative session following their appointment to continue to serve.

Arguments in favor of the change are that the department needs a full-time Cabinet-level director and that the commission is not trained in fisheries management.

Those against argue the commission was approved by statewide vote, and that the commission is composed of citizens who strive for broad public participation.

Among the no votes were Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, and Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.

* By a vote of 41-7, the Senate endorsed a constitutional amendment requiring that "exceptional revenue" be put into the state's rainy day fund.

Senate Joint Resolution 8209 was proposed by Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, and co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and would define revenue that exceeds 133 percent of the state's 10-year revenue growth average as "exceptional" and automatically sock it away in the rainy day fund.

The rainy day fund was established by a constitutional amendment in 2007.

If the measure gets passed by two-thirds of the House, it will appear on the ballot in November's general election.

* Herald staff writers Ingrid Stegemoeller and Kevin McCullen contributed to this report.

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