Legislation that seeks to change the way injured workers' claims are considered passed the Senate Monday evening despite opponents who say it would reduce benefits and remove impartiality from the judgment process.
The measure, which is part of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's legislative package, was overwhelmingly approved 28-2. The companion bill is set for the House Finance Committee on Tuesday.
"I feel confident that these reforms are not only going to keep Tennessee competitive but are going to benefit the workers of this state," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who is carrying the bill.
The hearings have been criticized by labor groups for being put on the fast track without input from the group representing people who stand to lose benefits. About 50 people gathered at the state Capitol last week to protest the legislation. There were chants of "We want justice" and signs bearing slogans like: "Don't Gut Workers' Comp."
Despite the opposition, the measure seems to be moving through the Legislature — like a "freight train," as one Republican lawmaker described.
The Nashville Scene reported last week that Rep. Jimmy Eldridge of Jackson didn't realize the Legislature's streaming video equipment was recording him when he made the comparison in the House Consumer and Human Resources Committee, which he chairs.
"I'm going to take care of that bill," Eldridge said. "That freight train is going off."
He later told The Jackson Sun that his comments were taken out of context.
"This workers' compensation bill is moving through, and we feel strong that it's a good deal that we got the votes to pass it. We want (bills) to move like a freight train, in a very careful way," he said. "I want to get this bill to the House floor and debated by all the members."
One criticism is that injured employee cases would no longer be heard in court, but by special judges selected by the person the governor picks to run the workers' compensation division.
Sen. Doug Overbey, one of two senators who voted against the bill, said the current system for handling cases is sufficient.
"We already have judges across the state ... that see to these claims," said the Maryville Republican. "We have the processes already in place."
Democratic Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson cast the other dissenting vote.
Last week, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh told protesters that the new system would add an unnecessary administrative branch to government. The Ripley Democrat called it "something we certainly don't need to do."
"We have the court system that's working well," Fitzhugh said.
State AFL-CIO spokesman Jerry Winters agreed.
"It limits access to the courts, which we consider is a basic American right, to be able to air your grievance in front of an impartial jury," Winters said. "It puts bureaucrats and politicians in control of the process."
Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a consumer watchdog group, said the proposal also removes certain factors used to determine the amount of money an injured worker should receive.
"It was very flexible based on each case," she said. "Well, they're moving that to sort of a bridge system, where they're really just saying no matter what you do ... and no matter what your injury is, you'll only get this amount of money."
Later in the week, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville told reporters he's considering a proposal to do away with the bill.
"Working people are just getting a big boot in the butt here," he said. "Not having workers' comp is better than what they're doing."
However, Jim Brown, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said his group favors the governor's proposal, particularly the provision for hearing cases.
"We're very pleased with it," he said. "This is the most fundamental reform that anyone can remember."
The last time the state's workers' compensation system was changed was under vastly different political circumstances. In 2004, it was Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen pushing for changes in a Legislature controlled by Democrats, and against the wishes of their traditional allies among trial lawyers.
That year the bill passed the Senate 28-4 after supporters defeated several efforts to make major changes. It went back to the House for concurrence on minor amendments and was sent to Bredesen for his signature into law.
The measure included a prompt pay requirement to ensure injured workers receive their benefits more quickly.
"I've always felt this was not about employers versus working people," Bredesen said at the time. "It is about how you create jobs, how you provide opportunities for people to have jobs."