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Published: Wednesday, 3/8/2006

Wage boost added to bill on BWC cuts

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS House Republicans yesterday stunned Democrats by attaching a 90-cents-an-hour increase in Ohio s minimum wage to a controversial bill reducing workers compensation benefits for injured workers.

Ohio s minimum wage of $4.25 per hour would be increased to match the federal minimum of $5.15, the first state increase in 15 years. The move affects workers who are exempt from the federal minimum, including those working for small restaurants, bars, and other businesses doing less than $500,000 in gross sales a year.

The last-minute maneuver places Democrats in the awkward position of voting against an increase in the minimum wage today when the bill reaches the House floor.

Democrats said they fear Republicans may use the issue to try to undermine an effort by a coalition of labor and other groups to increase the minimum wage to $6.85.

Many people have been debating this issue and saying the General Assembly ought to take some action, at least to come to the federal standard, said Rep. Stephen Buehrer (R., Delta), chairman of the State Government Committee, which approved the bill yesterday.

We are one of the small handful of states that s below the federal standard, he said. We ve been looking for a vehicle. Today was an opportunity to take care of it.

The bill passed the committee by a narrow 7-6 vote with one Republican joining all five Democrats in opposition. Gov. Bob Taft continues to support the bill, including the higher minimum wage, said his spokesman, Mark Rickel.

It s saying that we care about workers and then actually not passing a workers compensation bill that strips injured workers, while we do nothing to stop the abuse of the system by those investing in the system, said Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island), chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

We have lost millions of dollars within the workers compensation system, and this governor and this legislature have done squat to find those dollars, he said.

Democrats also objected to a Republican amendment stripping a campaign-contribution prohibition enacted by the workers compensation oversight commission in the wake of scandals over $228 million in investment losses in risky hedge funds and rare coins. The bureau had prohibited investment managers from contributing more than $250 per election cycle to any statewide elected official.

Republicans said the rule was inconsistent with state finance law which caps contributions at $1,000 per cycle or $2,000 per election year.

To remove the one provision, in which the BWC Oversight Commission was correctly answering the call of reform, is unconscionable to me, said Sen. Marc Dann, a Youngstown area Democrat. This provision has been the only action to actually rein in the pay-to-play culture.

Andy Doehrel, president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, disagreed with a Republican statement that the business community was in agreement with the increase in the state minimum wage.

We certainly had impressed upon leadership not to do anything more than the federal minimum wage, which would be detrimental to the state of Ohio, he said. To say we wanted this in the bill is taking it too far. This certainly wasn t something that we asked for by any means.

Gary DiCeglio, the AFL-CIO workers compensation and safety director, said he doesn t believe yesterday s move will defuse attempts to place a $6.85 minimum wage before voters on Nov. 7.

Raising it from the state [minimum] now to the federal minimum wage only affects something like 200,000 or 300,000 people, whereas raising it to $6.85, which is above the federal minimum wage, affects almost a million people, he said.

Democrats characterized the situation as the latest shoe to fall in the ongoing workers compensation investigations. The business-sought bill would cut from nearly four years to one the amount of time an injured worker may receive wage-loss benefits at two-thirds of his weekly salary while looking for a new job.

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



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