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Published: Thursday, 7/17/2014 - Updated: 1 year ago

Comp case is following Kasich

Ads say governor should get BWC to drop its appeal


COLUMBUS — The ongoing legal fight over roughly $860 million that courts have ruled Ohio’s insurance fund for injured workers must repay to some 250,000 businesses across the state has become an issue in Gov. John Kasich’s re-election campaign.

A series of TV ads financed by the plaintiffs’ group Pay Us Back Ohio urges viewers to apply pressure on the Republican governor to, in turn, bring pressure on the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation administrator he appointed to drop its appeal of the latest court ruling.

A version airing in Toledo and other markets goes after Mr. Kasich on one of his key campaign themes — his argument that the state has become more business-friendly on his watch.

“How can you be a business-friendly Ohio when you have the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Comp literally putting people out of business?” says a Columbus-area business owner who says he had to file bankruptcy, in part because of high workers’ compensation premiums.

“I voted for Mr. Kasich, and I would vote for him again,” he says. “I would just like to see him clean up this mess and get the money back to the businesses where it belongs.”

Kasich campaign spokesman Connie Wehrkamp declined to comment. Mr. Kasich’s Democratic opponent, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, has not taken a position on the case.

“Ed has pointed out several times over the week during a tour around small businesses that [Mr. Kasich], with an increase in the sales tax and the [commercial activity] tax ... hasn’t been a friend of small-business owners who drive our economy,” spokesman Lauren Hitt said.

The BWC has indicated it has set aside the money to pay the court judgment if that day comes, but Administrator Steve Buehrer, a former state lawmaker from Delta, recently decided to again appeal the six-year-old Cuyahoga County case to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The courts have so far agreed that the program forced a class of businesses to subsidize the workers’ compensation premiums of other businesses that benefited from deep discounts as members of a group of companies seen as having good safety records. This select group of employers was allowed to pool their risk as if they were a single entity.

In May, the 8th District Court of Appeals in Cleveland blasted the program.

“Reduced to its irreducible essence, this appeal is about a cabal of Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation bureaucrats and lobbyists for group sponsors who rigged workers’ compensation insurance premium rates so that for employers who participated in the BWC’s group rating plan ... it was ‘heads we win,’ and for employers who did not participate in the group rating plan ... it was ‘tails you lose,’ ” the court said.

Several statewide business organizations representing private and public employees such as the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, and Ohio School Boards Association have sided with the BWC in the case.

In a brief filed June 30, they argue that the lower courts’ decisions amount to a “judicial override” of BWC premium decisions and threaten the viability of the system.

The newest ad, airing in the Columbus area, focuses on volunteer fire departments that are reportedly owed $1 million.

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

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