For more than a year, Illinois has been gripped by political gridlock that’s left it operating with no state budget and on pace to finish 2016 in the worst financial condition in state history.
Fueling the standoff is a dispute between Gov. Bruce Rauner -- a Republican serving his first term in any elected office -- and House Speaker Michael Madigan -- a Democrat and the state’s most powerful and longest-serving politician -- over how to revive the state’s economy. One of the biggest points of contention is Rauner’s complaint that the state’s workers’ compensation insurance rates are among the highest in the nation and are chasing manufacturing jobs out of Illinois.
Indeed, the latest numbers from the Illinois Department of Employment Security show the state lost 11,800 manufacturing jobs from August 2015 to August 2016.
In addition to being Rauner’s political nemesis, Madigan also is the father of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. That’s why one statement Rauner made during a press conference on Sept. 19 struck us as noteworthy:
"Even our attorney general who is a strong Democrat, she has said that we need causation in our workers’ comp system. That’s the No. 1 thing pushing our manufacturing jobs out of Illinois," Rauner said.
Is Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is a Democrat and also the daughter of Rauner’s arch political rival, on the Republican governor’s side on this issue? We decided to check.
Rauner believes the current system for compensating workers who are injured on the job is too lenient, and gives businesses no way to defend themselves against claims of workplace injuries that may be only minimally work-related or not at all. Under Illinois law, if the workplace is involved in any way with an injury, even indirectly, the employer -- usually through its insurance -- bears responsibility for the workers’ compensation claim.
Rauner wants Illinois to adopt a law in which the workplace must be at least 50 percent responsible for the injury for the employee to qualify for a workers’ compensation claim. In legal terms, he wants to increase the standard of "causation."
Speaker Madigan has said, repeatedly, that Rauner’s system would "send injured workers to welfare and the emergency room."
The basis for Rauner’s claim is a 2012 opinion from the Attorney General’s Office with the catchy title, "Background on Workers’ Compensation Claims Filed by State Employees and Reforms Proposed by the Office of the Attorney General." The administration did not respond to three requests for verification that Rauner based his statement on this document. This opinion has been cited for years by advocates of a stricter standard.
Issued in March 2012, the 23-page document provides an exhaustive look at problems in the workers’ compensation system from the perspective of the attorney general -- who acts as the defense attorney for the state when state employees file on-the-job injury claims.
"In defending against workers’ compensation claims, the State is in a position similar to private employers," the opinion says in its introduction.
The document is chock full of incidents in which employees are awarded workers’ compensation benefits after suffering injuries in ridiculous circumstances. (One example: A Circuit City employee "was injured when he threw himself up against a vending machine in an attempt to dislodge a bag of Fritos.")
The opinion came out at a time when a bill in the General Assembly proposed a reform similar to what Rauner calls for in his turnaround plan.
"To protect taxpayer dollars, the legislature must address and change the causation standard that is currently applied by the (Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission) and the courts," the opinion states. "Senate Bill 2521 addresses the causation standard and provides an opportunity to discuss the appropriate language to make this needed change."
That’s not an out-and-out endorsement of every detail within the bill in question (which died quietly in committee without ever being voted upon), but it certainly encourages lawmakers to take up the issue.
Then and now
But that was in early 2012, when Illinois was in another political epoch. Rauner was an unknown to most Illinoisans, and Democrats were in their 10th year of controlling both the governor’s office and both chambers of the General Assembly. Rauner’s 2014 election hit the political landscape like a tsunami, and partisan tension never has been higher than it is now.
Does Lisa Madigan still believe "we need causation in our workers’ comp system," as Rauner claims?
"We do support changing the standard and strengthening it, but we have not laid out a new standard," said Ann Spillane, Lisa Madigan’s chief of staff. "From our perspective, there ought to be reasonable ways to change the standard that would not damage the purpose of workers’ compensation to ensure that employees who are injured on the job can fully recover."
So far, though, there’s been no discussion between Rauner and the General Assembly about "reasonable ways."
Rauner said, "Even our attorney general who is a strong Democrat, she has said that we need causation in our workers’ comp system."
In 2012, Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office went on record in considerable detail about the problems caused by Illinois’ lenient burden of proof for workers claiming workplace injury. The attorney general didn’t explicitly endorse the causation standard contained in a bill before the General Assembly at that time, but said the bill "provides an opportunity to discuss the appropriate language to make this needed change."
Today, even as this issue has become a focal point in Rauner’s deadlock with Speaker Madigan, Attorney General Madigan’s office maintains that the state should find "reasonable ways" to protect the rights of injured workers and employers.
We rate Rauner’s statement True.