September 17, 2019
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Partisan rancor threatens to ignite a new fight over workers’ compensation in Maine

Courtesy photo | BDN
Courtesy photo | BDN
The Maine Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co. (MEMIC) is the dominant insurer in Maine's workers' compensation system, which is being eyed for an overhaul by legislative Democrats.

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Maine legislators are dealing with a messy three-way split on changes to the workers’ compensation system after a deal negotiated between the administration of Gov. Janet Mills and labor and business interests fell flat with Republicans.

The system is an arcane one, but it is one of Maine’s most vital and politically charged programs. Runaway costs in the system prompted then-Gov. John McKernan to tie passage of a state budget in 1991 to cost-cutting measures, leading to a 16-day government shutdown.

Changes made since then have led to about a 60 percent decrease in costs, but the Democratic-led Legislature came in with a goal of expanding the system. It led to a deal that Republicans don’t see as a compromise and two partisan versions of an omnibus reform bill.

Democrats proposed several bills that would have eliminated limits they see as arbitrary but would have significantly raised costs. More than 20 bills aimed at the workers’ compensation system were filed this year. They’re largely aimed at removing caps and other limits on the system that Democrats, labor interests and lawyers find arbitrary. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce said in February that post-1991 reforms were “under attack.”

One bill would eliminate a cap on maximum benefits now equal to the average state weekly wage that the Maine AFL-CIO said harms workers who make more. Another bill would reinstitute a cost-of-living increase in place prior to 1991 and another would remove a 500-week cap on death benefits that a paralegal who represents workers called “punitive.”

It’s unclear exactly how much these bills would have increased costs, though an analysis by the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board and an outside group said several would represent increases as standalone measures and they would have compounded if taken together. Removing the cap on wages could raise costs between 2 percent and 3 percent alone.

That created the environment for a partial compromise that Republicans say they were left out of and later broke down. This led to the formation of a working group including the Mills administration, the chamber, labor interests and MEMIC, the dominant Maine insurer created under the reforms. Their deal included an increase in the maximum benefit from the average weekly wage to 120 percent of it and a cost-of-living increase for certain beneficiaries.

Peter Gore, a lobbyist for the chamber, said it was done in the hope of finding bipartisan support, estimating that the solution could raise total costs by between 2 percent and 4 percent. But he also conceded there were others who “should have been at the table.”

Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, said her party’s pick to represent for the working group was left off it. Republicans are behind another version drafted by the Maine Motor Transport Association and other business groups that would mix benefit hikes with “system improvements” that they say would make the changes nearly cost-neutral.

When Republicans didn’t sign onto the first deal, Democrats on the labor committee on party lines Wednesday advanced to a further-reaching version of their own bill. It raises the cap to 125 percent of the average wage, allows fringe benefits to contribute to it, lowers a permanent disability threshold to receive benefits beyond a cap and gives a wider cost-of-living increase.

Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, the co-chair of the panel, called it “something that actually helps people in a consistent way.” Gore predicted double-digit cost increases under it and said it would be “catastrophic” for the system.

There still may be time to make a deal on the issue, though it’s unclear where the governor stands. Spokespeople for Mills didn’t respond to a request for comment on the wrangling proposals on Thursday. The Democratic governor’s administration could be playing coy ahead of a cost estimate on her party’s proposal that could come next week.

It may have to play referee to a messy situation. John Rohde, the Mills-appointed director of the Workers’ Compensation Board, said an initial estimate found that the costs of the Democratic proposal would likely be lower than 19.5 percent decrease in rates between 2018 and 2019. So, he said, it would be “more affordable in 2020 than it was in 2017 while providing additional protection for the most serious injured workers.”

“The door is still open to getting to a bipartisan solution,” said Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, the co-chair of the labor panel.


Today in A-town

Legislators have largely cleared out for the Memorial Day weekend, but one committee may pass a compromise on sports betting. The only legislative panel meeting on Friday ahead of the holiday weekend is the gambling committee, which looks poised to largely come to a consensus at a 9 a.m. meeting on a bill that would make Maine one of an initial wave of states to legalize sports betting after it was allowed last year by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The panel agreed on some of the high points earlier this week, but there are two major points to decide on: the tax rates on betting revenue and whether mobile betting will stand alone or be tied to physical locations such as casinos or off-track betting parlors.

Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the committee’s co-chair, wants to solve that by charging higher tax rates for mobile sites while allowing them to stand alone. That arrangement seemed to land well with Republicans, although they were looking for lower tax rates than the 18 percent for mobile sites and 10 percent for brick-and-mortar facilities that Luchini floated.


Reading list

— A bill to mandate a climate impact study of Central Maine Power’s proposed transmission line through western Maine faltered in the House on Thursday. The Maine House of Representatives voted 74-64 in favor of the bill from Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, which had sailed through the Senate with a 30-4 vote. Further votes in each chamber will take place, but if proponents do not swing enough House members to achieve a two-thirds majority, the bill cannot be enacted as an emergency measure, endangering the timeframe in Carson’s proposal to direct the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to commission a study on the corridor’s effect on global carbon emissions by Aug. 15. All but 18 Democrats voted for it in the House on Thursday. All Republicans except four — Patrick Corey of Windham, Randall Hall of Wilton, Dennis Keschl of Belgrade and Joshua Morris of Turner — opposed it.

— A bill to remove all nonmedical exemptions from Maine’s school vaccination mandate is headed to the governor. The bill from Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, drew hours of heated testimony and spurred strong opposition during each phase of the legislative process. But on Thursday, the Senate voted 19-16 to give the bill final passage and send it to Mills, who supports it. Sen. Russell Black, R-Wilton, voted for enactment as a parliamentary maneuver to allow a reconsideration vote, but that failed 18-17, reflecting the narrow Senate divide between proponents and opponents. Three Democrats — Luchini, Erin Herbig of Belfast and David Miramant of Camden — joined all Senate Republicans in opposing the measure.

— Belfast’s plans to move a polling place spurred a tense discussion about insensitivity to Native Americans. Mayor Samantha Paradis objected when city councilors began considering whether to move a polling place to a building called Redmen’s Hall. “I know that historically we have called this the Redmen’s Hall, but the group that leads this organization are not indigenous,” Paradis said Tuesday at the regular city council meeting. “And so I would want to be sensitive about the language that we use and have respect for our indigenous neighbors and think about a better title and name for this building.” The council’s discussion around the name of the hall briefly flared into something of a confrontation between Paradis and Councilor Neal Harkness. He asked the mayor how she wanted to refer to the building, saying that even though he agrees that he would like the name to be changed from Redmen Hall, the city has no right to tell the organization that owns the property what they can call themselves.

— There might finally be a solution to a 20-year environmental problem in midcoast Maine. Next month, a contractor will begin hauling some of the 27,000 tons of discarded carpet fiber from a site in Warren to Dragon Cement, which will burn it for fuel. The mountains of carpet-like fiber arrived on the site around 1998, when state environmental regulators allowed the owner of R.D Outfitters rifle range to bring in the materials from a company in Auburn. Steamship Navigation, which owned the rifle range, claimed at the time that the material was going to be used as berms to stop bullets from going off the property. But the berm project never came to be, leaving state and local officials on a 20-year quest to find a way to get rid of the mess. Meanwhile, Summit Utilities on Thursday announced a deal with Maine dairy farmers to convert manure to fuel.


Remains of the day

I am no good at serious conversations. That annoys my wife, especially when she wants to talk about finances, wills, advance directives and other important stuff — like what to do when we die.

Pragmatic and wise, she has a clear plan for what should be done with her remains. Ever a goofball, I for years have told people who ask that, when I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes compressed into a dart board, at which people can toss barbs. It seems a natural progression from my current state among the living.

When people dismiss that nonsense and press me for what I really want done with my remains, I usually say, “Just drag my carcass to the compost pile out back.” Other than Fenway Park, it’s the closest thing to a sacred place in my life.

Now, through the harmonic convergence of the legislative process with the decomposition process, that could really happen. Washington state just made it legal to compost human remains.

The Associated Press reports that Washington now “allows licensed facilities to offer ‘natural organic reduction,’ which turns a body, mixed with substances such as wood chips and straw, into about two wheelbarrows’ worth of soil in a span of several weeks. Loved ones are allowed to keep the soil to spread, just as they might spread the ashes of someone who has been cremated — or even use it to plant vegetables or a tree.”

Maine needs to get on board. I would be all in on a system that — instead of placing cut flowers at gravesites on Memorial Day — would allow my loved ones to sprinkle composted me all over our perennial garden. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Programming note

In observance of Memorial Day, Daily Brief will not be published on Monday. We will return on Tuesday May 28.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com or rlong@bangordailynews.com.



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