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Published: Wednesday, 7/12/2006

True BWC reform avoided

TO NO one's particular surprise, Republican leaders in Columbus have pretty much kissed off far-reaching reforms urged by an outside consultant that studied the structure of the scandal-plagued Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

That's a mistake. The current BWC structure still invests too much power in the hands of a single person - the governor.

Since Tom Noe's "Coingate" scandal blew the lid off corruption at the bureau more than a year ago, Gov. Bob Taft and his fellow GOP legislative leaders have done little more than nibble around the edges of workers' comp reform.

Now their message is a reassuring "everything's OK," even though the independent consultant has offered a number of sensible recommendations to diffuse political influence in the way in which the bureau operates and the manner in which key officials are appointed.

Of course, many of these same Republicans will be crying bloody murder if a Democrat occupies the governor's mansion come January.

That's because the bureau has become a microcosm of the kind of political insiderism that can infect state government, as happened in Ohio over the past 15 years, when one political party controls all the levers of power for a protracted period.

Should a Democrat grab the Statehouse reins in the Nov. 7 election, now an increasing likelihood, GOP leaders will no doubt complain that too much power is vested in the governor in regard to the BWC. Democratic leaders, having no incentive for reform, will just scoff and continue the present system.

So, wouldn't it make sense for Republicans to adopt significant changes now and at least get some Brownie points with voters for reform? Unbelievably, they are resisting.

Governor Taft claims, through a spokesman, that no more change is needed because "there is already in place a complete, different structure to the bureau." Senate President Bill Harris says the legislature "did what we thought had to be done to tighten things up" and doesn't wish to "overreact."

But genuine reform that dilutes political influence is not overreaction, it's good government. Republican leaders don't want to admit that the BWC needs more reform because that would be to admit that the system they've nurtured since the early 1990s remains susceptible to corruption.

Indeed, real workers' comp reform might also draw wider attention to the egregious practice under Mr. Taft and his predecessor, George V. Voinovich, of appointing people to state boards and commissions - particularly state institutions like the University of Toledo - based less on competence and more on how much they've contributed to Republican political campaigns.

Tom Noe, awaiting trial on multiple charges of corruption, was a variation on that theme. He became a reliable GOP donor after being appointed as a trustee both of Bowling Green State University and the Ohio Board of Regents, and after he got $50 million in BWC funds to fritter away on ill-advised rare-coin investments. The bureau also lost $215 million on a Bermuda hedge fund investment that smelled of political influence.

In short, state Republican leaders are wasting an opportunity to get public credit for workers' compensation reform. Do they think the voters won't notice?

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