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Janell Cole, Published January 14 2009

Session’s first WSI vote goes partisan

BISMARCK – A bill about workers’ compensation insurance premiums became the first partisan vote in this legislative session Tuesday.

The Republican majority easily prevailed in passing House Bill 1036, which creates a law dictating exactly how Workforce Safety and Insurance must be set, according to actuarial recommendations.

Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, had pushed for the bill, saying he never wants the state workers’ compensation agency beset by deficits again due to premiums being set artificially low for political reasons. He and others blame unrealistically small premiums in the 1980s and early 1990s for the agency’s financial problems, when the amounts owed in claims outstripped the amount of money taken in in premiums.

Berg began work on the bill last fall, anticipating that North Dakota voters would return WSI to the governor’s cabinet. They did. The agency had been managed by an independent board since 1997, when the Legislature removed it from the governor’s jurisdiction.

But during floor debate in the House on Tuesday, Democrats opposed the bill.

Rep. Bill Amerman, D-Forman, argued that a law dictating to the governor and his agency administrator exactly how premiums are set runs counter to the voters’ wish to return WSI to the governor.

He said the law could prevent the agency from increasing benefits for injured workers.

“It might hamper what the citizens thought the governor could do,” he said.

The vote was 62-32. The House has 58 Republicans and 36 Democrats. Four Democrats voted with the majority: Rep. Eliot Glassheim of Grand Forks, Reps. Rick Holman and Lee Kaldor of Mayville and Rep. Robert “Tork” Kilichowski of Minto.

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. She can be reached at (701) 224-0830 or forumcap@btinet.net