Last-minute legislation to overhaul California's workers' compensation system easily cleared both houses of the Legislature Friday and was sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for a certain signature.
There was no time to spare for Senate Bill 863 because the Legislature was to adjourn for the year at midnight.
The wide-ranging changes to California's system for treating and compensating injured and ill workers received bipartisan support in the Assembly, 66-4, and in the Senate, 34-4..
Key elements of SB 863 would increase permanent disability benefits by $740 million - an average hike of about 30 percent - and would create a $120 million program for workers injured severely enough that they cannot go back to a job at their previous wage level. It would pay for the increased benefits by squeezing medical costs and administrative procedures.
Republicans praised the measure for benefiting California businesses, too, by easing prospects of a potential 18 percent increase in their workers' compensation insurance costs.The State Compensation Insurance Fund, the quasi-public agency that is the state's largest workers' comp insurer, has said it would reduce employers' premiums should the legislation be enacted.
SB 863, carried by Los Angeles Democrat Sen. Kevin de Leon, was hammered out during lengthy negotiations by representatives of labor unions and employers but fiercely opposed by lawyers representing injured workers and some medical care providers.
The goal of SB 863 was to increase benefits by creating savings through changes to the workers' compensation program likely to reduce the number of lawsuits filed over treatment and compensation.
Supporters hailed SB 863 as a way to correct inequities that have arisen from workers' compensation reform passed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004.
Assemblyman Jose Solorio, a Santa Ana Democrat who jockeyed SB 863 on the Assembly floor, called the proposal an "all-out assault on waste, fraud and abuse."
"The current system is wrapped up in red tape, it's too expensive, and it's hurting California employers," added Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert.
But Fresno Republican Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, a physician by profession, predicted that the real-world impacts of the bill will never measure up to supporters' claims.
"This is a harmful bill to the people we're purporting to help," she said.
Assemblyman Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, said that lawmakers would feed voter cynicism of back-room deals by approving a 170-page overhaul crafted in the final days of the legislative session, with little public scrutiny.
"Let's conduct ourselves with more honor and more dignity," he said. "Let's involve our community in our decisions."
Brown expressed support for SB 863 today.
Editor's note: This post was updated to correct a quote from Nestande.
Updated at 10:28 p.m. to reflect Senate approval.