JACKSON — Mississippi House members now favor changes to the state’s workers’ compensation system after previously voting against them.
House members voted 60-56 yesterday to pass Senate Bill 2576, which proponents say would balance a system that now unfairly favors workers.
Opponents dispute that, saying the insurance system for paying for on-the-job injuries is balanced now and that the changes would put too many hurdles between injured workers and payment.
Because the House changed the bill, it returns to the Senate for more work. The Senate can accept the changes and send the bill to the governor, or it can seek final negotiations with the House.
Tempers ran high among some Democrats after the vote, with Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, getting into a scuffle with Rep Bennett Malone, D-Carthage. Malone was one of three lawmakers, along with Ken Morgan, R-Morgantown and Jody Steverson D- Ripley, who changed their earlier “no” votes to “yes.”
Jeff Smith, R-Columbus; Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville; and Deborah Butler Dixon, D-Raymond; switched from voting “no” to not voting, decreasing the number of opponents by three more.
The House had voted down a similar bill 62-52 March 14. In addition to the Democrats who changed their votes, five Republicans who had been absent or failed to vote also joined the “yes” side Wednesday.
Evans said that after the vote he saw Malone waiting by a Capitol elevator. He said he made a remark that implied Malone would gain campaign contributions because he switched his vote. Malone said that Evans called him “a no-good piece of s—,” in a loud voice in front of a crowd of people.
“When he said that, emotions got out of hand and I went after him,” the 68-year-old Malone said.
Malone said nearby lawmakers grabbed him and Evans. “I got one lick in,” Malone said. “I really resent anybody thinking I would sell a vote,” he said, explaining that he changed his mind after being lobbied by his county supervisors and county development group. Malone said that after close study, he concluded “it’s a good bill for the worker.”
Evans, 62, said he did not try to hit Malone.
“Obviously I was really upset,” said Evans, who had earlier given a speech against the proposal. “I had spoken to Bennett a couple of times before the vote and I knew he was waffling on it.”
The bill’s many changes include a provision to allow employers to test employees for alcohol and drugs if they are injured on the job. It would also require employees to provide the employer with medical proof that their injury or illness is a direct result of their job if their claim is contested, and would increase the immediate payment to a spouse and funeral expense assistance in the event an employee is killed because of their job.
Opponents said it would make it too hard for employees to get payments if they’re hurt at work.
“What the bill does is now force the employees to go and prove fault,” said Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood.
Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, again argued for the bill, saying that the workers’ compensation system had become stacked against employers and insurers over time and that he wanted “fair and impartial blind justice for all, not just for the guy who’s working, but for the guy who hires him. And not just for the guy who hires him, but for the guy who insures the employer.”
“I can’t see the problem,” Formby told the House. “If you come to work drunk, you miss your benefits. If you come to work stoned, you miss your benefits.”
Formby said later that he thought the two-week intermission between votes allowed time for supporters to present more information to persuade House members.
“This is definitely is one of those situations where an elapsed time of a couple of weeks allows everyone on both sides of the issue to interject and try to sway members,” Formby said.
The vote came on the same day that the state Business and Industry Political Education Committee held a luncheon for lawmakers. The influential business group tries to elect business-favored candidates, and had a hand in the 2011 election where Republicans swept to a majority in the House. BIPEC prints annual scorecards, ranking lawmakers on certain votes it judges important, and several people said they expected the workers’ compensation vote to make that list.
Steverson was the only House Democrat that BIPEC endorsed for election in 2011, with BIPEC saying he and his Republican opponent would be equally acceptable.