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OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) – A politically active construction-industry group wants voters to decide whether Washington’s workers’ compensation system should face private competition, a move bitterly opposed by organized labor and top Democratic lawmakers.
The Building Industry Association of Washington filed paperwork this week for an initiative aimed at privatizing workers’ compensation insurance in the state.
The association – called BIAW for short – would need to collect about 241,000 valid voter signatures by this summer to get the measure on the November ballot. The BIAW is a frequent player in the state’s election campaigns, and is known for its aggressive support of conservative candidates and causes.
Washington is among a handful of states that don’t allow private insurers to sell workers’ compensation coverage. While some large employers in the state can self-insure, the rest pay into the state system, which is administered by the Department of Labor and Industries.
If approved, the initiative would set up a task force to recommend ways of bringing private insurers into the workers’ comp system. The Legislature would still have the final say.
“We’re not eliminating the Department of Labor and Industries,” BIAW Executive Vice President Tom McCabe said Thursday. “Everybody keeps saying it’s a nuclear option. They’ll still be in existence. They’ll just have to compete in the marketplace.”
Business leaders and Republican lawmakers regularly cite workers’ compensation costs as a significant hurdle to job creation in the state, saying Washington has some of the nation’s most generous benefits for injured workers.
Labor officials and their Democratic allies, who control most of state government, counter that the system’s costs are relatively low when compared to other states.
The two sides’ long-running battle is picking up again this year, as the state tries to climb back from a long recession and most state lawmakers face re-election campaigns.
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said it would be “an absolute tragedy” to privatize the state-run workers’ comp system, which has been in place for decades.
“That would be a disaster, and I hope to God the public also agrees on this,” Chopp said Thursday.
Workers’ compensation rates will climb by an average of 7.6 percent this year, raising about $117 million for the state-run system.