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Tweaked workers' comp bill may be too late, for now

Rules require a waiting period on what senators changed and approved, but the session will be over before it is up.

Published May 2, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - At the urging of Gov. Jeb Bush, the Legislature worked quickly Thursday to resolve pending legislation aimed at fixing the state's complex workers' compensation system.

But lawmakers' efforts might not matter.

The Senate added several amendments to the workers' compensation bill late Thursday, and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd has made it clear that he will not bend a House rule that requires a two-day waiting period before a bill amended by the Senate can be passed.

With a 104-10 vote, the House passed a bill intended to lower the price businesses pay for workers' compensation insurance. The Senate amended the bill and then passed it 35-5.

Senators and House members said the bill would lower the cost of insurance by about 14 percent, a goal set by Bush. But it also narrows benefits for workers and restricts attorneys' fees.

With that vote, and another by the Senate approving a major reform on auto insurance, the Legislature hoped to solve two of the biggest insurance issues before today's deadline marking the end the 60-day session.

Throughout the discussion on the bill, the Senate expressed frustration at Byrd's decision to make senators wait until Thursday to send the House version over for consideration.

Senators alluded to a likelihood that they would be back in a special session to take it up.

"Frankly, if we are back here in a month to do it better, I'll be the first one on the turnpike," said Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, who led the Senate effort to reform workers' compensation.

The House bill includes a narrower definition of catastrophic injury. It excludes exposure to toxic substances and second- and third-degree burns, points that prompted several House members and senators to vote against the bill.

Many senators expressed displeasure voting for the House bill, but said they had little choice given Byrd's demands.

"Seems like a lot of the ideas in the bill seem to be with reducing workers' benefits," Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, said before voting for the bill.

A few did not support it.

"I hope we stand up for workers," Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, said. "How can you respond by voting for this bill? I understand there is some fraud, but I can tell you this does not help workers in the state of Florida, and we are sending a bad message."

Before the vote, Hill asked King to go to a special session. He suggested chartering buses to bring injured workers up to testify.

Bush has made workers' compensation a priority this session. When the proposals stalled this week and appeared headed for a special session, Bush met King and Byrd earlier in the day and asked them to get to work.

Florida businesses currently pay the second-highest rates in the nation, while workers receive some of the lowest benefits.

[Last modified May 2, 2003, 02:31:39]

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