The Kentucky General Assembly entered the final day of its 2017 session Thursday with several key bills still in political limbo.
People packed a hearing room in the Capitol annex for an early morning meeting of the Senate Economic Development, Tourism and Labor committee to see what would become of House Bill 296, which would rework the state’s workers’ compensation program. The committee, though, adjourned without taking up the bill.
Still, the unions that have avidly opposed the bill haven’t declared victory yet. Committee Chairwoman Sen. Alice Forgy-Kerr, R-Lexington, said the panel might reconvene to take up the bill at any time over the course of the day.
She also said Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, has written a substitute for the bill that tries to address some of the issues raised by organized labor.
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Bill Londrigan, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, said his organization has issues with the committee substitute because it could still make things difficult for workers who are on permanent partial disability.
That provision also has drawn the ire of police and firefighter unions. It would allow employers to stop paying benefits after 15 years for partial disabilities that are permanent. The bill would exempt some injuries, such as loss of a limb, hearing, eye or teeth, from the 15-year cap, but opponents argue that it isn’t enough.
The Senate panel did take up substitute language offered by Stivers for House Bill 377, which now makes changes to who pays workers’ compensations benefits for miners with black lung claims.
As the number of coal companies in Kentucky has declined, the amount that remaining coal operators must pay into the Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis Fund has skyrocketed.
Stivers said the high assessment is forcing more coal companies out of Kentucky, which then leads to more workers’ compensation claims from miners as they lose their jobs.
“We didn’t want to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of driving thousands of more jobs out of Kentucky,” Stivers said, when explaining his substitute.
To resolve the problem, Stivers presented a bill that would shift the responsibility for paying out existing claims from the CWP Fund to Kentucky Employers’ Mutual Insurance. KEMI would charge coal companies last year’s lower assessments to pay the claims.
“I don’t know of anyone that is in the system that is opposed to this,” Stivers said.
The amended bill passed unanimously and goes to the full Senate for its consideration.