A proposed ballot measure would return control of North Dakota’s workers’ compensation bureau to the governor, bypassing a board of directors that now employs the agency’s top manager.
The proposal, which was delivered to Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Friday, would give the governor power to hire and fire the chief executive officer of the Workforce Safety and Insurance agency. An appointed board of directors is now in charge of hiring the CEO.
The measure would put Workforce Safety and Insurance employees back into the state personnel system, which provides some rights in discipline and dismissal proceedings, and regulates pay raises.
It would require the agency to use independent administrative law judges when deciding claim disputes. WSI already uses administrative law judges, but the agency has the option of rejecting their decisions.
“We think this is needed to restore some fairness,” said the measure’s chairman, Jean Wanner, who lives in the Dunn County community of New Hradec.
WSI’s current chief executive officer, Sandy Blunt, and its investigations director, Romi Leingang, each face a felony charge related to the agency’s alleged misuse of driver’s license photos taken from the Department of Transportation.
Earlier, a judge dismissed two unrelated felonies against Blunt for alleged misuse of WSI funds. Prosecutors are appealing the dismissal to the North Dakota Supreme Court.
Wanner said she believed publicity about the charges would bring more attention to the ballot measure, which she says is needed to restore accountability to the workers compensation agency. An appointed board has hired its director since 1997, when the Legislature voted to take away the authority from then-Gov. Ed Schafer, overriding his veto in the process.
The board’s chairman, Robert Indvik, of Bottineau, said he believed the measure was unnecessary. Under the board’s oversight, Workforce Safety and Insurance’s financial health has improved, benefits have increased and insurance rates have remained among the nation’s lowest, he said.
“We think we’ve had an outstanding track record,” Indvik said. “We don’t think there need to be changes that would reduce the board’s authority.”
Don Canton, a spokesman for Gov. John Hoeven, said Hoeven supports putting WSI back under the governor’s control. Legislation that would have done so was rejected in the 2007 Legislature, although lawmakers approved changes to how the board’s members are chosen.
Jaeger must review the measure and draft a summary of what it does, which is called the ballot title. He cannot change its content.
Once the initiative petition’s format has been approved, supporters may begin gathering the minimum of 12,844 signatures they need from North Dakota voters to put it on the ballot.
Workforce Safety and Insurance provides insurance coverage to workers who are injured on the job. Employers are required to buy coverage, in exchange for protection from lawsuits filed by injured workers. The agency pays medical costs, lost wages and rehabilitation benefits.
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