Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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An empty-handed gesture

Election-year politics, not the welfare of Ohio employers and employees, is the real reason behind the passage last week in Columbus of legislation that would cut aid to injured workers by millions of dollars while propping up the state's feeble minimum wage with what amounts to an empty-handed gesture.

Moreover, majority Republicans behind this cynical exercise continue to show contempt for reforming the Bureau of Workers' Compensation by crippling one of the few attempts to remove political influence from an agency badly tarnished over the past year by the "Coingate" scandal.

In addition to changing the manner in which workers are compensated by the state for on-the-job injuries, the legislation nullifies limits on political contributions by BWC investment managers that were put in place by the agency's oversight commission in response to revelations by The Blade about the $50 million contract awarded GOP campaign contributor Tom Noe to invest in rare coins.

Mr. Noe is now under indictment for having converted at least $3 million of $13.5 million missing from the investment pool to his own use, money that would have gone to treat and support injured workers. Still under investigation is the bureau's loss of $228 million in a Bermuda hedge fund managed by a politically connected Pittsburgh firm.

Losses like those, along with a decision to dramatically reduce BWC's investment risk, have sharply cut the agency's reserves, causing it to drop proposed premium rebates for insured businesses.

Republicans, who control the governor's office, the legislature, all statewide administrative offices, and the state Supreme Court, have been shamefully slow and reticent to clean up after Coingate. But, as the workers' comp bill shows, they are not shy about seizing every opportunity to maintain their hold on power in the Nov. 7 election.

The 90-cent increase in the state minimum wage, from $4.25 to $5.15, is particularly transparent.

Virtually everyone in Ohio covered by minimum wage law already makes more than $5.15, so working people won't be helped much. As the president of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants said, "Who in the hell can afford to pay that and get any workers? I don't think it's going to cost anybody any money."

In reality, the major beneficiary of the illusory wage increase will be GOP political consultants, who undoubtedly are already busy concocting election ads trumpeting Republican generosity toward workers while excoriating Democrats who voted no.

The partisan charade also detracts from the intended purpose of the workers' comp bill, which had been worked out before the scandal broke by labor, business, and trial-lawyer interests to improve aid to injured workers.

The compromise legislation would cut benefits for some workers while increasing them for others, but it would save BWC some $100 million a year. Ironically, the bill probably would have sailed through the legislature with little trouble had not the GOP added the inconsequential minimum-wage increase.

Equally troubling is the provision in the bill that negates a $250 limit imposed on political contributions to state officeholders by BWC investment managers.

The limit, restored to $1,000, was one of few reform measures adopted in the wake of Coingate, and this action indicates Republicans are satisfied to continue business as usual in the corrupt arena of state politics.

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