It is a recent hallmark of our political process that legislators apply the label "reform" very loosely. It's a great-sounding term that invites instant, unquestioning support from everyone. Who, after all, could possibly be opposed to reform?
Too often lately, though, the tactic of giving legislation a feel-good name has been employed when the legislation's intent or spirit is quite the opposite of the name it is given. The federal Clear Skies Act and Patriot Act come immediately to mind. As, to a lesser degree, does the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Here in Alaska, we can add to the mix the attempt of the Murkowski administration to paint workers' compensation reform as being all about helping Alaska workers.
Predictably, examples provided as proof that reform is needed, usually by Gov. Murkowski's commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, are long on sentimentality and short on showing the full picture.
Make no mistake, we feel for small-business people everywhere who are faced with rising insurance costs. But we also care deeply about the workers whose protection would suffer, and whose fundamental rights might be eroded under the proposal.
We know that the present system is abused. But we also know that the vast majority of claims made annually are legitimate, including many claims that are denied or delayed by insurance companies more interested in their bottom lines and shareholder profits than they are in doing what they are supposed to be doing.
In the 2002 election cycle, which brought the Murkowski administration to power, 76.4 percent of the $1.85 million collected by the Murkowski-Leman campaign came from business interests, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., organization that tracks money in politics.
Nationally, the numbers are about the same. Some three-quarters of all contributions to candidates and parties in the 2004 election came from business interests. The eye-popping $1.5 billion donated is more than 24 times what labor interests donated. It's a massive amount of money that buys a massive amount of clout.
Is it any wonder, then, that worker protections are eroding? Or that recent "reforms" designed to ease the financial burden on businesses have resulted in the gutting of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and decreased its ability to enact or enforce workplace safety measures?
Is it possible in an atmosphere of relaxed safety standards that workplace injuries might increase?
According to the Alaska Public Offices Commission, there are 17 lobbyists presently at work in Juneau representing the insurance industry. Are they all pushing exclusively for the governor's workers comp "reform"? Unlikely. But you can bet they're not pushing much of anything that improves the lot of working people.
We are completely behind reform. But that reform should start with the system that finances our political campaigns and the way it allows insurance, health-care and business interests to pay for the privilege of stacking the deck against workers. Ultimately, though, the highest purpose of any workers' comp reform should always be to reasonably ensure the safety of people at work and responsibly care for them when they are injured on the job.
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