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Published: Friday, 6/30/2006

BWC benefit cuts may go to ballot

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS Voters in November could get a chance to reverse legislative cuts in benefits for some injured workers following the filing of nearly 240,000 signatures yesterday with the Ohio secretary of state s office.

Backers of the union-led effort hope history will repeat itself. Voters in 1997 overwhelmingly repealed a broader workers compensation reform law.

The portions of the law targeted for repeal have been placed on hold. Other sections go into effect today, including a last-minute Republican amendment raising Ohio s minimum wage from $4.25 an hour to match the federal minimum of $5.15, a move affecting about 100,000 workers.

It was a final insult, like putting lipstick on a pig, to put a weak minimum-wage effort in there to try to disguise this issue, Rep. Dan Stewart (D., Columbus) said. The public has already spoken on this once in 1997 and it will speak again. You are not going to balance theft and mismanagement of a state agency on the backs of injured workers.

At least 193,740 signatures, the equivalent of 6 percent of the vote for governor in 2002, must survive challenge as valid registered voters for the question to be certified for the ballot.

The law as a whole was expected to save the BWC an estimated $100 million a year. Bureau spokesman Nancy Smeltzer said the provisions targeted for repeal would negate as much as $97 million of that.

Should the repeal effort prove successful, Ty Pine, director of the National Federation of Independent Business/Ohio, said his group would ask lawmakers to repeal the entire law.

The business community, the AFL-CIO, and the Academy of Trial Lawyers struck a balance, he said. Even the folks who were filing [yesterday] saw things they liked and didn t go after those worker benefits. But this would just eliminate the common sense and expand the benefits.

Among the targeted provisions is a reduction from 200 to 52 weeks the time an injured worker may collect two-thirds of his paycheck while looking for a new job he is physically capable of doing.

It also would restore a rule enacted by the Bureau of Workers Compensation Oversight Commission that prohibited those seeking to do business with the bureau from contributing more than $250 to statewide elected officials.

The General Assembly struck that rule, essentially raising the contribution bar to $1,000.

In addition to preserving the minimum-wage increase, the repeal effort does not target provisions increasing facial disfigurement and death benefits.

This was a conglomeration of more than a handful of issues that have percolated for years, Rep. Stephen Buehrer (R., Delta) said. At the end of the day, it cleaned up a lot of problems, moved forward in benefit areas, and saved $100 million for employers of the state.

Toledo City Councilman Frank Szollosi said he believes this ballot issue will help to elect Democrats at the ballot.

Republicans in years past have been really skilled at bringing out cultural issues to try to turn out their voters, he said. One, this [referendum] is the right thing to do. Two, this helps us elect candidates who are pro-working families.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496.



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