Lingle adviser misstated House labor actions
LINDA SMITH, Governor Lingle's senior policy adviser, was ostensibly mistaken in last Sunday's Star-Bulletin
when she stated that the House Labor Committee has failed to "move an inch" on lowering the wage base for unemployment insurance taxes and improving Hawaii's workers compensation system ( "Governor's proposals would help both workers and businesses," Insight, Feb. 12
). Smith's statements can be no further from the truth and must be corrected.
The first bill the House Labor Committee heard this legislative session was about reducing unemployment insurance (House Bill 1797). Introduced by Rep. Bob Nakasone, vice chairman of the Labor Committee, the bill reduces the wage base for unemployment insurance taxes from the current $34,000 level to $7,000, a substantial reduction. This will result in significant savings in tens of millions of dollars for businesses, large and small, during the next two years. The governor's bill would do the same thing for three years. We believe it is more fiscally prudent to be cautious. In two years, if the economy remains strong, this could be extended.
ALL MEMBERS of the House Labor Committee in attendance voted for this significant pro-business legislation, including the two Republicans. One of them, Rep. Colleen Rose Meyer, praised the committee for moving this legislation before taking on any other issue. In fact, the governor's director of Labor and Industrial Relations, Nelson Befitel, supported HB 1797 in testimony before the Labor Committee.
On the workers' compensation front, the vice chairman of the House Labor Committee and I met weekly last fall with a working group comprised of members from the major stakeholders in the workers compensation system. This included employers, workers and unions, health-care providers and insurance companies. The goal of the group was to see if we could find some common ground in improving our workers compensation system. We found this not to be an easy task as there is significant mistrust and suspicion among these four groups.
As a result of this group's hard work, numerous bills improving efficacy within the workers compensation system were introduced this session. The House Labor Committee heard a number of these bills and moved seven of them (HB 1802, 1867, 2646, 2647, 2694, 2695 and 2698). This can hardly be called insignificant.
SEVERAL OF these bills will provide injured workers with quality care in a timely manner and through a coordinated care system. This ensures that they can return to work without unnecessary delay, which is otherwise prevalent in our increasingly adversarial workers compensation system.
There are several other bills that streamline and standardize the numerous reimbursement forms. In testimony, the business community supported this legislation as a step to reduce paperwork, bureaucracy and delays. Overall, this will reduce the cost of treating injured workers.
The House Labor Committee, after hearing the compelling testimony of the medical community and others, passed legislation designed to increase the medical fee schedule for health-care providers taking workers compensation cases. The House Labor Committee clearly sees the connection between low reimbursement rates and the low number of providers serving workers compensation patients. The committee's policy goal is to offer the best medical treatment available for injured workers and not increase workers compensation insurance premiums for employers. Smith's asserting otherwise is playing politics with serious issues that affect businesses and the hard-working men and women of this state, and that is reprehensible.
Finally, I attended the National Federation of Independent Businesses function that Smith refers to in her article. The event was designed to honor its longtime lobbyist Betty Tatum, who is loved by everyone at the Legislature, Democrats and Republicans alike. House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro calls her "everyone's auntie."
IN HONOR of Betty's tireless lobbying on behalf of the small businesses of Hawaii, the House Labor Committee heard and moved a bill (HB 861) last session that would exempt limited liability corporations and limited liability partnerships that are closely held from having to obtain workers compensation insurance. Betty has testified that passing this bill is the No. 1 thing the Legislature can do to help small business in Hawaii. This bill now sits before the House Judiciary Committee, where I have been assured it will get a hearing.
Much has been done by the House Labor Committee to address the very issues Smith complained about. The focus should not be on the politician, but on doing the people's work. The House Labor Committee is doing this work. Smith should feel free to make an appointment with me if she feels that we are neglecting issues. I have never refused a meeting with her. Or perhaps she could stop by the House Labor Committee when we are hearing bills on unemployment insurance and workers compensation. Then perhaps she will better understand the facts on these issues.
Rep. Kirk Caldwell (D-Manoa) is chairman of the House Labor Committee.