AUGUSTA — Blaming Democratic legislative leaders for not cooperating with him, Republican Gov. John R. McKernan on Thursday angrily called off a planned session on Workers’ Compensation reform, saying it would be a waste of time.
“I am terribly disappointed,” McKernan told reporters gathered on the Blaine House lawn after “a very unpleasant and short conversation” with House Speaker John L. Martin, D-Eagle Lake, and Senate President Charles P. Pray, D-Millinocket.
McKernan said the Democratic leaders refused to limit the scope of a special session to acting on four Democratic amendments to the workers’ comp package enacted in July. McKernan contends the four amendments will tack on between $25 million and $35 million in extra costs to Maine businesses when they pay their next workers’ comp premiums.
McKernan had wanted the Legislature to strip the workers’ comp amendments before the Bureau of Insurance decides a pending workers’ comp rate case on Sept. 30.
But he said the Democratic leaders refused to agree to limit the session and, “I’ve decided we’re not going to call a special session. It would just be a waste of taxpayer money.”
Also Thursday, Susan Collins, commissioner of professional and financial regulation, appointed Edward S. Godfrey, a retired Maine Supreme Court justice, to oversee workers’ comp rate hearings that will be conducted next week.
McKernan used part of his press conference to blast Martin and Pray, saying Democrats need new leadership if anything meaningful is going to be done to improve Maine’s business climate.
“What we need is new leadership in the majority party,” he said. “The whole purpose of this was to give a shot in the arm to businesses that provide jobs in this state. Voters need more Republicans in Augusta if they’re going to make changes that will improve the business climate in this state.”
But Democrats said McKernan had made up his mind not to call a special session even before Thursday’s telephone call which by all accounts lasted just two minutes.
There was evidence that McKernan had made up his mind in advance as his press secretary handed out a detailed press release on McKernan’s comments only moments after the governor had finished talking with Martin and Pray.
Asked about that, McKernan said he’d had two press releases prepared in advance, one calling the special session, the other calling it off, and he waited to gauge the reactions of Martin and Pray before making his decision.
“The only chance of a successful session was a one-day session that would make changes before the rate case is decided on Sept. 30,” said McKernan “I thought it was important that we not have a knock-down, drag-out session that dragged on for weeks.”
But Martin said he could not bind the entire Legislature to an agreement without consulting with lawmakers first.
Speaking from his office as an instructor at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Martin said, “We have a process in which we’re supposed to do things in the Legislature and it’s not by fiat or decree. I can’t speak for 150 people without talking to those people. To do so would be irresponsible.”
Martin claimed that McKernan asked him to promise in advance that Democrats would go along with repealing the controversial workers’ comp amendments.
“I only had five minutes before my 12:30 class,” Martin said, adding that this was the first time McKernan had contacted him about the special session since the Legislature adjourned in mid-July.
As for McKernan’s call for Martin and Pray to be replaced, Martin said, “He’s trying to protect the Republican Party from becoming extinct. I don’t believe he is being honest with the people of Maine. His motives escape me. They are transparently political.”
House Majority Whip Joe Mayo of Thomaston said McKernan was only trying to divert attention from workers’ comp by blasting Martin and Pray.
“I would just as soon have had a sepcial session so we could set these issues to rest,” said Mayo.
The rate hearings will be held Sept. 11, 12 and 13 at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland. The hearings will assess the impact of the workers’ compensation reforms enacted in July by the Legislature.
Last spring, Insurance Superintendent Joseph Edwards was asked by insurance companies for a 30 percent rate increase. The public advocate, Maine Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Maine AFL-CIO argued that no increase was warranted. Edwards determined that a 14 percent rate increase was justified.
McKernan had sought 35 percent cuts in workers’ comp premiums. After the amendments were attached to the workers’ comp bill, Richard Johnson, a state actuary, said the net effect of the bill would do little more than offset the pending 14 percent rate increase.
One of the amendments makes the reforms effective Oct. 17 instead of July 1 as originally intended. Two other independent actuaries have argued that this amendment should not significantly reduce savings in the bill.
Other amendments require that employers pay all reasonable expenses incurred by injured workers looking for new jobs and limit the number of doctors who could qualify as independent medical examiners.
Jeri E. Brown, acting superintendent of insurance, is to decide the rate case after Godfrey, who served on the Maine Supreme Court from 1976 to 1983, hears evidence in the case.
Collins said the resignation of Edwards led to her decision to appoint Godfrey to hear the case.