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The Associated Press March 23, 2011, 3:36PM ET

Montana gov's office endorses work comp compromise

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer's administration said Wednesday that it is supporting a deal with Republicans to cut workers' compensation insurance rates that are widely regarded as too expensive, paving the way for a big compromise on one of the larger legislative issues of the session.

Labor Commissioner Keith Kelly told a Senate panel that the governor will support a reform measure from House Republicans after negotiated changes are attached, which the administration believes will provide needed protections for workers. He said the compromise was finally reached late Tuesday night.

"This is really significant legislative reform you have here in front of you," Kelley told the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee. "We really are at a historic moment where we can close that gap and get our hands around it."

Sen. Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish Republican who helped broker the deal with the administration, said it took a lot of back-and-forth over many sessions to reach the deal. He was intent on making certain that worker's compensation remained the "exclusive remedy" for worker injuries by making sure benefits remained strong, while also reducing the cost to businesses.

Zinke said the bill could reach the Senate floor by Saturday, and after concurrence in the House, hopes to get it to the governor for his signature before the end of the month. If so, it would represent the first big policy compromise between Schweitzer and Republican legislative leaders this session.

"That's the message: We can work together and when we work together we accomplish great things," Zinke said.

Both Schweitzer and Republican leaders -- who have so far tangled on far more issues than they have been able to settle -- made work comp costs a top policy priority at the Legislature's start.

Republican Rep. Scott Reichner, who is carrying House Bill 334, said the compromise bill could cut work comp premiums by 40 percent within three years. He made clear to panel members that leading Republicans back the deal.

"I think this is a fix. And this fixes us, and gets us to where we want to be at 40 percent over the next three-plus years," Reichner said.

He said an independent reviewer has tagged the savings at 25 percent in the first year of implementation alone.

One big change in the compromise will allow more injured workers to receive benefits on injuries past five years. Those who have lingering medical issues from the older injuries can go to a review panel to continue benefits that were automatically cut of at five years under the original Republican proposal.

Labor interests that included policeman, trial lawyers and others spoke against the bill, although some said they had not had a chance to review the details on the last-minute compromise.

Jason Miller is a labor leader who helped negotiate the original work comp fix that came out of three years of negotiations between labor and business. That deal was scuttled by GOP legislative leaders in favor of Reichner's original deal.

Miller said the new compromise reached by the governor does not do enough to help workers. He said the original idea was to reduce costs to business -- while improving benefits the workers feel are too low. Labor interests feel that medical costs are the biggest problem with the system.

"The original incentive was to fix both problems," Miller said. "We found a solution for one side, but we have not yet found a solution for low benefits."

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