Saturday, September 1, 2012

Legislature overhauls workers comp and standardized test scoring on busy final ... - Tri-Valley Herald

SACRAMENTO -- The state Legislature on Friday capped its 2012 session by passing hundreds of bills -- from overhauling how schools are ranked to granting immigrants driver's licenses -- while debating a big-money worker's compensation reform.

Now, Gov. Jerry Brown has until the end of September to decide how many of the 275-plus bills on his desk he will sign into law, and which ones he'll send to the scrap heap with a veto.

On Friday, the last big item of business was a plan to overhaul the state's $16 billion workers' compensation system, which serves about 100,000 injured employees. The problem is that a third of the system's cost are tied up in administrative wrangling like court battles, reducing benefits and leading weary insurance companies to raise rates.

The deal hammered out between unions, employers and the state over 150 hours of negotiations would shift most treatment disputes from lengthy court proceedings to quicker decisions made by doctors, similar to the model used under Medi-Cal.

Insurance companies say these savings would allow them to reverse their upcoming 18 percent premium hike and instead cut rates by as much as 7 percent. Combined with cutting down on court cases, this would save companies who pay for disability some $770 million in the next year. Meanwhile, workers on disability would see their benefits rise by an average of 30 percent.

On Friday afternoon, with hours left before the session ends, SB

863, from Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles had overwhelmingly passed the Assembly while awaiting a vote in the Senate. Brown was cheering them on.

"They have crafted an extraordinary bill that will avert an imminent crisis where workers suffer and rates will skyrocket," Brown said, adding the bill would make the system "much better for workers and cheaper for business."

Earlier in the day, the Legislature passed SB 1458, which would change the way public schools are ranked. The issue was a high-stakes one as cities and neighborhoods -- and accompanying home values -- are often judged based on the Academic Performance Index scores assigned to local schools.

Currently, API scores are based entirely on standardized test results. The bill would allow things like graduation rates and students' preparedness for jobs and college to make up as much as 40 percent of API scores, with test results still accounting for the rest.

The bill's author, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, argued that standardized tests only gauge limited subject areas. He had support from educators, parents and business leaders tired of seeing kids who are great at taking tests but don't have a complete, real-world education, leaving them ill-prepared as adults.

"Californians know our students need more than a high test score to succeed in life," state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson said.

Legislators stopped short, however, of overhauling another education measure: how teachers are evaluated.

AB 5 had pitted unions against school districts and education reformers. It would have allowed school districts to disregard standardized test scores in evaluating teachers, added an "excellent" teacher evaluation option to the current pass/fail-type system and made evaluations more frequent.

But before the bell rang on the legislative session, proponents said they realized they would not have enough time to vet their proposal, and scrapped it.

"I believe this issue is too important to be decided at the last minute and in the dark of night," said the bill's author, Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar.

On immigration, a bill to grant driver's licenses to young illegal immigrants granted temporary work permits by the federal government also made it to Brown's desk. As many as 400,000 immigrants in California who have a high school diploma and a clean criminal record would be eligible for driver's licenses.

"It really is about public safety," said the bill's co-author, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, arguing that everyone driving on California roads should be licensed and insured.

Staff writer Matt O'Brien contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.

bills that made it to the governor's desk Friday:
AB 2080: Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park; would allow relatives to drop off family members' vote-by-mail ballots for any reason, not just illness or disability, as is the current law.
AB 1478: Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-San Fernando Valley; state parks would stay open for at least the next two years, helped by $20 million in recently discovered "hidden" money.
AB 41: Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo; would require members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority to disclose financial investments as a means to prevent conflicts of interest.

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