For eight years the Maine Legislature played a supporting role to a my-way-or-the-highway governor, who made compromise a dirty word.

As this year’s legislative session grinds to a close, we are going to find out how much has changed.

On the table is a compromise worked out by a group of stakeholders that would make some small but important changes to the workers’ compensation insurance system. Unfortunately, Republicans are refusing to sign on, leaving Democrats with no dance partner.

There’s a deal waiting to be made where both sides would give a little to get a little. Is that kind of governing still possible?

We hope so. With unified control of the House, Senate and governor’s office, Democrats have the ability to pass legislation with no Republican votes. But, when it’s possible, compromise is still the best way to make good laws.

Proposed reform of the state’s workers’ compensation insurance regulation is a great example.

Democratic lawmakers showed up for work this year with 25 bills to change the workers’ comp system, each of which would have made benefits better for injured workers and insurance more expensive for employers. 

As those changes were examined and debated, a small group of stakeholders, including representatives of business and labor, worked out a compromise that both sides could support.

It would increase the cap for a maximum workers’ comp benefit, currently the lowest in New England, and create cost-of-living adjustments for workers who are completely disabled for life and currently see the buying power of their benefits shrink with every uptick of inflation.

Actuaries predict that these reforms would have little impact on rates. Employers have a commitment that if the compromise passes, these will be the last reforms for a while, and they will have the chance to see how these changes ripple through the system.

But so far, elected Republicans have rejected the package, saying that they would not support any changes to what now exists.

Rejecting this deal would be a big mistake. They may not like what’s been proposed, but they would like the bill that Democrats could pass without their support even less. Their refusal to sign on makes it hard for Democrats to stay on board. Without some level of Republican support, it looks less like a compromise than like unilateral surrender.

But even though they have the votes to pass a bill on their own, the Democrats also have an interest in compromise.

Insurance regulation is complicated, and you can’t always predict the outcomes of any one change. Pulling 25 levers in a system that is currently stable – even if it’s not perfect – is bound to result in unintended consequences.

It would be better to move a lever or two now, and wait to see what happens, than to flip all the switches at once.

Twenty-five years ago, Maine had the most expensive workers’ compensation system in the country, leaving the state with only one provider and passing the costs on to employers required to buy policies.

The battle over reform was ugly and featured a 16-day shutdown of state government in 1991. That led to the creation of a blue ribbon panel of experts, who proposed a system that looks much like the one we have today. Workers gave up their right to sue and employers committed to making their workplaces safer. Insurance premiums dropped, and the number of claims declined, indicating that fewer people were getting hurt at work.

After all that time, there should be enough information to reach two conclusions: that the reform worked, and that benefits set 25 years ago need to be updated.

That sounds like the makings of a deal, if anyone remembers how to make one.