Tennessee workers' comp fix on fast track

photo Governor Bill Haslam answers questions in this file photo.
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed workers' compensation overhaul, more than a year in the making, is now on the legislative fast track.

The measure on Tuesday easily flew through a pair of committees, including one that limited public comment on the 68-page bill to a few minutes. The proposal now seems poised for swift approval in the Republican-controlled legislature over opponents' accusations that it is being rushed through with little debate.

That wasn't the case before the House Consumer and Human Resources Committee, which heard nearly two hours of comments on House Bill 194 before advancing it on a 7-3 party-line vote.

The Senate companion (SB 200) had an easier time, unanimously clearing the Commerce and Labor Committee. It allowed a scant seven minutes of public comment, evenly split between each side, because members previously had heard arguments during a precommittee meeting last week.

The measure would funnel all injured workers' claims through an administrative process handled by a new state agency, thereby removing any court oversight. It also would create an ombudsman, tighten the definition of work-related injury and establish treatment guidelines, among other things.

Supporters, primarily Republicans and business interests, say the changes will make the system more cost-efficient, fair and predictable. Opponents, mostly labor advocates and lawyers, contend any changes will help employers and their insurance companies at the expense of workers by reducing their benefits.

Both sides followed their respective scripts before the committees.

Supporters called the bills, the result of more than a year of study, "well-written," "fair" and "balanced." Opponents countered with harsh terms such as "barbaric" and "sacrificing workers."

Committee members' comments, for the most part, were limited to questions. The exceptions were the House committee's three Democrats, all of whom panned the proposal.

"This bill is the worst bill I've seen since I've been here, as far as working people goes," said Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory. "This bill really disturbs me."

Critics also contend legislative supporters are "railroading" the reform effort through by stifling opposition. They cited the Senate committee's limit on public comment; the House committee meeting in one of the smallest meeting rooms; and recorded comments made last week by Rep. Jimmy Eldridge, R-Jackson, that the bill would "fly" through the House committee, which he chairs.

The reform effort also has some hefty political muscle behind it. Besides being among Haslam's top legislative priorities, the proposals are co-sponsored by the Republican majority leaders of both houses.

Opponents did notch one small win Monday: If passed, the measure's effective date would be delayed six months to Jan. 1, 2014.

The bills now advance to each chamber's government operations committee. The Senate version would have one more committee stop beyond that, and the House version three more, before they can reach the floor for full votes.

Contact Duane Marsteller at 615-259-8241 or dmarstelle@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter @DuaneMarsteller.