SACRAMENTO — If there is anyone left who thinks the Capitol is not in a state of gridlock, consider the battle to fix the $12-billion workers' compensation system.
From big business to organized labor to influential legislators, everyone agrees that California's system for compensating workers who get hurt on the job is rife with inefficiency and fraud. In the last 10 years, its cost has tripled while injured workers continued to receive paltry benefits.
But with the legislative session drawing to a close Monday, efforts to overhaul the system have bogged down amid political brinksmanship, strong lobbying and verbal assaults--in short, a lot of business as usual in the state Capitol.
Few were expressing optimism that a deal could be reached, even though Administration officials had talked confidently for months about reaching a compromise. But business and labor leaders conferred in Wilson's office while legislators continued to work on a bill Friday. The possibility remained that the Legislature could draft a bill to the governor's liking or deal with it in a special session later.
Complicating it all, however, are more than 75 lobbyists from a maddening array of interest groups who are working hard to influence a final package. Among the groups are doctors, chiropractors and lawyers. Psychologists are pitted against psychiatrists. Big business fights small business. California insurance companies are in conflict with national insurers.
"This makes a Barnum & Bailey three-ring circus look small," said Sen. Bill Leonard (R-Big Bear), the co-author of the main Republican bill and one of six members of the Senate-Assembly conference committee, which is trying to come up with a compromise.
In the meantime, legislators and lobbyists say, what is generally getting neglected is serious consideration of the key underlying issues. But Republicans and Democrats do not even agree on what the fundamental issues are. Republicans express fears that business is being strangled and regard sweeping workers' compensation reform as essential to revitalizing the state's economy.
Democrats support cracking down on abuses in the system but call for striking a careful balance between the interests of workers and employers. As Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), co-chair of the conference committee, put it: "To what extent are we willing to sacrifice legitimate claims (of injured workers) for an improvement in the business climate?"
Republicans and Democrats say there is a need to hold down workers' compensation insurance costs paid by California employers, which are among the nation's highest. The problem is how to cut those costs and how and when to boost benefits for injured workers.
More than 80 bills have been proposed in the current legislative session, but they have been boiled down to the two partisan positions pushed by Leonard and Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles). They split over, among other things, how the system should handle claims for stress and other psychiatric injuries.
California is one of only six states that compensate workers for stress that is suffered gradually, a fact that enrages many employer groups. Most state systems cover stress only if it stems from a "sudden and extraordinary" event--for instance, the stress suffered by a supermarket cashier robbed at gunpoint.
Republicans maintain that too many workers and their doctors claim stress injuries to bilk the state's workers' compensation system. As a result, they want to adopt the "sudden and extraordinary" standard for everyone in the private sector.
Democrats, citing studies showing that stress is a growing workplace problem, resist limiting the types of psychiatric injuries covered by the system. But they would make it harder to receive stress benefits, requiring that at least 51% of a worker's psychiatric problem be job-related, up from the current 10%.
Republicans also would go further than Democrats to prevent workers from filing claims after they have been laid off. As for injured workers' benefits, Democrats want an increase next year. Republicans hope to block any increase until 1995 at the earliest.
Policy differences aside, both sides accuse each other of using the issue for political gain. Republicans say Democrats do not want reforms because that would hurt their big donors, including lawyers who represent workers.
Democrats charge that Republicans are counting on inaction so they can bash Democrats in fall campaigns for failing to respond to the crisis.
"They write up a bill and they won't change a word, not a word," said Margolin, the other co-chair of the conference committee. "It's all directed at the strategy of having a Republican Legislature next year."
Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), another conference committee member, agreed, saying the real reason for inaction is that the governor is hoping to embarrass the Legislature by once more showing how important work does not get done.