A lengthy hearing in the California Assembly on Wednesday indicated that one of the Capitol's longest-running political wars is being reignited.
It's over the rules governing workers compensation, the multibillion-dollar system that provides medical care, rehabilitation and financial support to those with work-related injuries and illnesses, what those in the Capitol call "work comp."
Roughly once a decade, those with stakes in the system -- employers, work comp insurers, lawyers who represent disabled workers, labor unions and medical providers -- wage battle over eligibility rules and medical care and benefit levels.
The last major change occurred in 2004 when a newly inaugurated Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, backed by the threat of an employer-sponsored ballot measure, bulldozed the Legislature into enacting cost-cutting changes. Administrative rules subsequently issued by Schwarzenegger's administration went even further.
The overhaul resulted in a sharp reduction of employer costs, but it has drawn years of criticism from other stakeholders that disabled workers are receiving inadequate compensation, that medical care is too tightly controlled, and that insurers are losing money on work comp policies.
Wednesday's hearing aired all of those complaints, as well as employers' resistance to raising their costs in the midst of an economic downturn. The latter apparently have support from Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been cultivating business to support tax increases to balance the state budget.
It's not a new issue for Brown. He attempted to overhaul work comp during his first governorship more than three decades ago but failed. As one of his last gubernatorial acts in 1982, he signed legislation that raised benefits by about $3 billion a year over objections of employers. The Legislature enacted another big change in the system a decade later, followed by the Schwarzenegger overhaul in 2004.
Wednesday's hearing was conducted jointly by the Assembly's labor and insurance committees. While it came to no conclusion, it indicated that the Legislature's majority Democrats want to make some modifications to the system.
"We need to work together," Carl Brakensiek, a veteran lobbyist for work comp medical providers, told the committee.
If history is any guide, however, it's more likely to be an exercise in power politics than political compromise.