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California

Talks Held on Workers' Comp Reform

March 26, 2004|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Negotiators for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislative leaders met Thursday in hopes of reaching an agreement on fixing the state's troubled workers' compensation insurance system.

Details of the talks were scarce.

The Republican governor has said he wants a "conceptual" agreement by tonight so lawmakers can pass a reform bill by the end of next week. Legislative staffers said they were told to be prepared to work through the weekend drafting what was sure to be a complex package of bills.

People close to the talks said the negotiators meeting in the governor's office were trying to pin down ways to cut the cost of providing benefits to injured workers, speed the process of getting the workers back on the job and ensure that savings from lower insurance premiums are passed on to employers, whose workers' comp rates have doubled or tripled in recent years.

Much of the heavy lifting in the talks is taking place in face-to-face conversations between Schwarzenegger and Senate President Pro Tem John Burton. Burton, a veteran San Francisco Democrat, has met with the governor at least three times this week.

A so-called Big Five meeting of the governor, Burton and three other top legislative leaders is tentatively set for today.

"It's now in the hands of the gods and the demigods," said Barry Broad, a labor union lobbyist who has been involved in negotiations with the governor and business associations over the last month.

Despite the quickened negotiating pace, evidence of a specific breakthrough in the parlays remains scant. "We're not there yet," Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto said.

Though buzz about a possible workers' comp deal dominated the statehouse Thursday, the scarcity of hard information made it impossible to handicap the outcome of the deliberations. Indeed, business lobbyists and staffers for top legislative leaders spent much of the day calling around to their counterparts in largely forlorn efforts to find tiny nuggets of news.

State Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi confessed that he had no clear idea of where the talks were leading.

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