SPRINGFIELD — House Minority Leader Jim Durkin on Monday suggested the workers’ compensation system might be the point where Republicans and Democrats get together and start breaking the months-long impasse that has left Illinois without a budget.
“In my caucus, I believe that workers’ comp is extremely important, extremely important,” said Durkin, R-Western Springs.
“And I’m of the belief, after my discussions with the (House) speaker and the (Senate) president, over the months, that is an area where we can find some common ground.”
“If we‘re going to get through the budget … that’s one of the things we’re going to have to address. It has to be part of the plan, it has to be part of the big picture,” Durkin said in a presentation to the City Club of Chicago.
Durkin also said the GOP doesn’t expect Democratic support for big changes in workers’ compensation “causation,” which refers to whether an injury actually occurred at work and to what degree the workplace is responsible.
Still, he said, “there are many other issues we can deal with on workers’ comp,” citing as examples the implementation of American Medical Association recommendations and changes in payment-for-loss schedules.
A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, didn’t sound keen on embracing Durkin’s suggestion.
"We passed legislation last year that focuses on the insurance industry, which appears to be a blockade point,” said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown.
“The important thing is there have been independent studies that say the cost of workers’ comp has come down dramatically since the 2011 reforms (but) the insurance companies aren't passing it along,” said Brown.
“We have a bill that was passed that could focus on the insurance companies (and) get the money to the employers, but the governor is focused on taking wages away from employees,” Brown said.
Brown referenced House Bill 1287, which passed the House last June by a vote of 63 to 39. While Democrats said it was a substantial measure and an olive branch to the governor, Republicans dismissed it as an insincere gesture and falling well short of the changes they want. The bill remains in the Senate.
Illinois’ fiscal year 2016 began July 1 of last year, but Rauner and the Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, have been unable to come to an agreement on a budget.
Rauner wants changes to Illinois’ political and economic systems he says are necessary if Illinois is to stop bleeding jobs and population and regain competitiveness.
Those include changes to the workers’ compensation system. Despite bipartisan reform legislation in 2011, the GOP says Illinois still has the seventh-highest workers comp costs in the country. They say that’s pushing business, jobs and people out of Illinois and degrading both its tax base and quality of life.
Rauner’s “Turnaround agenda” also includes calls for local property tax relief coupled with diminished collective rights for public employees; changes to the civil lawsuit system; term limits for elected state officials; and independent political redistricting.
Despite seven-plus months of gridlock, Durkin said he still believes a deal can be negotiated.
“I do believe there is a pathway, an opportunity for us to get through this historic impasse by doing it in a fair, responsible manner,” he said.
The top House Republican said that can happen everyone comes to the negotiating table with open minds.
But Durkin also said while Republicans see room for common ground, they won’t be folding on the governor’s agenda.
“This can get done,” Durkin said, but he added, “It’s “not going to be just about taxes — it has to be about reforms, (and) it has to be about bringing new life to Springfield.”
Durkin also argued that Rauner’s agenda items are not anti-middle class, as Democrats have portrayed them, but something that will increase opportunities for all Illinoisans.
“To my Democratic colleagues, please hear this: Changing the status quo in Illinois won’t hurt the middle class,” he said. “It will save the middle class.”
Madigan’s spokesman rejected that characterization.
"That's totally incomprehensible,” Brown said. “If you were to follow the governor's approach on workers comp (for example), you'd be bringing wages down. That would damage middle class families. You'd be forcing them not to be able to provide for their families. You'd force them onto welfare, you'd force them into emergency rooms of hospital rooms for their medical care.”
Durkin said the governor and GOP lawmakers are ready to talk.
“The governor’s offered two different plans, pick one,” he said, referring to the fiscal 2017 budget address Rauner delivered last week. “If you don’t like either, let’s find a way to reconcile them; let’s negotiate, and let’s find commonality.”
Brown maintained it’s not Democrats holding up a budget deal.
"We're not the ones demanding that non-budget issues take the first seat,” he said. “We're the ones who said we need to work on a budget that is balanced, that has cuts and revenues. But we're not the ones suggesting we do non-budget things, some of which don't even take place until the next decade at the earliest — (that those) have to be done before we can get to a budget."