Businesses plead for Olympia's best shot

By Luke Timmerman
Seattle Times business reporter

Olympia, WA - 3/5/03 - Business lobbyists have been looking for a clever way to push some of their issues into state law, and they think they may have found one.

This week, small and big business groups zeroed in on their "Final Four" issues all related to reining in insurance premiums. The lobbyists handed out minibasketballs to each member of the state House of Representatives, full-sized balls for House leaders, and a memo loaded with sports metaphors just in time for college basketball's main event. One part of the memo says "The ball is in your court" to pass bills that would save businesses millions of dollars and create jobs.

"We've handed out papers and done testimony, but we felt we needed to do something more catchy to get their attention," said Amber Balch, a lobbyist for the Association of Washington Business.

The issues aren't easily translated into catchphrases, and are largely being negotiated by lawmakers and lobbyists behind closed doors. They are:

Simplifying and limiting some benefits in the workers' compensation system;

Allowing small businesses to buy cheaper health insurance, with less coverage;

Capping lawsuit liability, particularly in medical malpractice and construction;

Changing the unemployment system, both in how taxes are collected from business and in how benefits are divvied out.

Several bills dealing with these issues have passed the Republican-majority-controlled Senate, and are now in the Democrat-majority-controlled House.

Businesses say changes need to happen quickly, because they are facing soaring costs in all four categories. Many were particularly upset when state-set workers'-compensation rates rose an average of 29 percent this year. Partly because investment returns aren't floating the fund like they once did, the reserve fund has been depleted by past rebates to business, and because court decisions have expanded some workers' benefits.

Small businesses, in particular, say rising health-insurance premiums have caused many to drop health coverage for employees. One bill moving in the legislature would change state insurance rules to allow stripped-down policies covering emergencies, but maybe not treatments like chiropractic or naturopathic.

Rep. Lynn Kessler, House Majority Leader, D-Hoquiam, said Democrats have passed several bills recommended by the Competitiveness Council, so she wasn't happy with some business lobbies painting her party as an impediment to reform. She said the Senate Republicans have stalled one of their business-related bills that would save money on prescription drugs, and that Democrats are willing to pass a new unemployment system once splintered business interests agree on one.

She said Democrats agree that businesses need some bills to pass, but not extreme ones, such as widespread liability caps.

"Our approach doesn't use a hatchet, it's more of a scalpel," Kessler said.

Rep. Cathy McMorris, the House Minority Leader, R-Colville, said as many as three of the four issues have a chance at success in coming weeks. Businesses would also like to change the unemployment system, but no firm proposal has emerged from negotiations yet.

If the current economic trends hold steady and no changes are made, businesses can expect to see more double-digit percentage premium increases across the board next year, Balch said.

Dave Kaplan, executive director of the Washington Self Insurers Association, said one insurance premium alone isn't enough to sink a business, but in combination with other costs, he called it "death by a thousand cuts."

"When things are going great, businesses found a way to provide those benefits, but in a downturn, some things need to be constrained," Kaplan said.

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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