Columnist Charlie Wheeler proposes a way out of the current stalemate in state government.
News Analysis — As the state’s current budget impasse persists, one suspects most citizens no longer are keeping score as the name-calling and partisan jabs keep flying among Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic legislative leaders, chiefly House Speaker Michael Madigan and to a lesser degree Senate President John Cullerton. Instead, a common sentiment would be a pox on all their houses. Particularly distressing to thoughtful citizens is the cavalier fashion in which our most vulnerable neighbors are being used as pawns in the power struggle between a governor whose anti-union fervor trumps everything else and Democrats determined to stand up for the party’s longtime allies in organized labor.
The governor blames Madigan and Cullerton, of course, and insists he’s pared down his original list of 40 some non-negotiables to just a handful of must-haves before he’ll consider ways to close a budget hole that grows deeper by the day.
First things first, the Democratic leaders say, and right now nothing’s more important than sorting out current spending and finding a way to pay for the services people expect. Save the ideological stuff for later.
At some point, though, one would hope an attack of rational behavior would befall the dramatis personae in this tragedy, compelling them to set aside the partisan invective and seek out common ground that would allow the state to move ahead. How might that play out with the governor’s key demands?
Two of the governor’s wish list items seem especially suited for negotiations, workers’ compensation and so-called tort reform, changes in the way personal injury lawsuits are handled. Neither involves black-and-white absolutes and over the years compromises have been forged in both areas.
In the current standoff, Rauner argues the state needs massive changes in both areas to reduce business costs and to make Illinois more attractive to potential employers. His rhetoric is disputed by Democrats and their union allies, in the case of workers’ compensation, and their trial lawyer friends, in the case of tort reform, who say they’re more concerned about working class folks injured on the job or through someone else’s negligence.
Lawmakers last overhauled workers’ compensation in 2011, tightening eligibility, reducing medical fees, and replacing most of the arbitrators who hear cases. The changes saved employers some $315 million, mostly by cutting payments to doctors and hospitals, but insurance costs remain among the highest in the nation.
To bring them down, the business community wants stricter standards for proving an injury was work-related, especially taking into account situations in which a worker’s current duties might aggravate a condition that existed before the worker started the job.
Labor unions point instead at the largely-unregulated companies that write workers’ compensation insurance, accusing the insurers of pocketing much of the savings under the 2011 reforms, instead of passing them all on to business.
In fact, benefit payments by insurers dropped 19 percent between 2011 and 2015, according to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, the state agency overseeing the program, and average medical payments were down 16 percent. Illinois also had the largest decrease in premiums among all states, dropping from 4th to 7th highest, with some of the 2011 changes still kicking in.
To move the discussion forward, why not return to a practice quite common in years past, the agreed bill process? Representatives of business and labor used to meet on workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and similar issues to hash out their differences and craft compromise legislation that completely satisfied neither side but which both could accept. Once business and labor signed off, the legislature and the governor would enact their work product. In similar fashion, the process today could combine, for example, tighter definitions for workplace injuries with closer oversight of insurance companies.
Whatever agreement might be forged, though, workers’ compensation costs are likely to remain higher in Illinois than neighboring states, because claims largely are based on average annual wages, and at $52,590, Illinois is 23 percent higher than the median of its neighbors, the commission reported.
Democrats could give on tort reform, too, for example by agreeing to stricter rules on choosing the venue in which a personal injury suit can be filed or by limiting recovery for medical expenses to the amount actually paid, rather than what’s billed. Both provisions are included in the Republican leadership legislation.
The longtime Holy Grail for business, of course, has been a limit on awards for non-economic loss, so-called “pain and suffering” in personal injury suits. Three times in the past, legislatures and governors have enacted caps. Three times the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled the limits an unconstitutional infringement on judicial prerogatives.
The wall would be breached, though, by a proposed constitutional amendment that would establish specific limits for medical malpractice awards, punitive damages and certain other judgments. Its sponsor? Madigan — perhaps a signal the speaker is open to changing the system.
Common ground easily could be found on a property tax freeze, too, if the governor were to abandon his insistence that any measure include anti-union language Democrats dubbed a “poison pill.” Among the provisions are ones to severely restrict collective bargaining and to eliminate the requirement that a prevailing wage based on union earnings be paid on public works projects.
The governor’s rationale seems to be that school districts and other local governments could weather a tax freeze just fine, if they were empowered to pay their workers less and did not have to bargain over health care and other benefits.
Shorn of the controversial items, the freeze bills sponsored by Republican leaders are nearly identical to Democratic-sponsored measures GOP lawmakers criticized as “shams.” All would rewrite the current property tax cap law to include home rule units and to limit to zero percent the year-to-year increase in property taxes a governing body could seek. Now, the annual cap is the lesser of 5 percent or the inflation rate. As a practical matter, a “zero” cap would not have a dramatic impact on the property tax bills Illinois residents will be paying next year, as the current law will limit increases to just 0.8 percent.
As an aside, if the governor and lawmakers really want to rein in property taxes, the most effective way to do so would be to increase the state’s share of education funding because roughly 60 percent of property tax collections statewide go to local public schools.
For his part, Rauner might want to yield on his insistence that Democrats agree to place two proposed constitutional amendments on the November 2016 ballot, one imposing term limits on lawmakers and executive branch officers, the other changing the way legislative districts are drawn following each decennial census.
Abandoning for now the constitutional quest as a good will gesture would win effusive praise from fawning editorial boards besotted by all things Rauner, but perhaps more importantly would cost the governor nothing, while still leaving open a route to real reform.
Critics point to Madigan as the poster boy for term limits, noting that he’s been in the House since 1971 and speaker for all but two years since 1983.* But using Madigan to sell Rauner’s proposed constitutional amendment seems a stretch. While the governor’s plan would limit lawmakers to a total of 10 years in the General Assembly, the clock wouldn’t start running until January 2017. The Democratic speaker wouldn’t be forced to leave until January 2027, a few months shy of his 85th birthday.
More generally, whether term limits would make a legislature more responsive to voters’ wishes is an open question; academic research provides no clear-cut answer, although the experience in some term-limited states suggests as long-term public policy expertise declines among the membership, unelected staff and lobbyists begin to fill the knowledge void.
Perhaps more significantly, though, unless Illinois legislative elections become more competitive, the most likely result of term limits in many districts would be to replace one lackluster politician of the majority party with another cut from the same cloth.
The true key to legislative change lies not in term limits, but rather in revamping the manner in which new legislative districts are drawn following every decennial federal census. The Constitution currently gives the General Assembly and the governor until June 30 of the year following the census to approve a map, as occurred in 2011, when Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed a map crafted by Democrats intended to assure Democratic legislative control throughout the decade.
If no map is enacted by June 30, an eight-member, bipartisan commission is established to draw new districts. If the commission deadlocks, a ninth, tie-breaking member is chosen by lot. Democrats won the draw in 1981 and 2001, while Republicans prevailed in 1991. In each case, the result was a classic gerrymander, with districts drawn to protect the winning party’s incumbents and maximize its numbers, all at the expense of the losing party.
Rauner’s proposed amendment would revamp the process to have an 11-memmber, non-partisan, independent commission draw new districts, following guidelines that include respecting the geographic integrity of local government units and the geographic integrity of communities sharing common social and economic interests, not including ties to political parties or candidates for office. Incumbents’ residences and an area’s past voting history could not be factors.
A proposed remap plan would need support from Democratic, Republican and independent commission members to be approved. If the panel deadlocked, a special redistricting commissioner would be appointed jointly by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and by the most senior justice of the other party. The commissioner would draw the final map, following the same criteria established for the commission.
The governor and the proposed amendment’s Republican sponsors argue convincingly that the new format would preclude partisan gerrymanders, guarantee more competitive elections, and thus strengthen voter engagement. Research supports the claims, so why might Rauner want to back down on such a meaningful reform?
Simply put, because he still can get exactly what he wants, even without Democratic lawmakers aboard. Instead, if the governor is truly serious about meaningful reform, he should do all in his power to assure the ultimate success of an ongoing petition drive to place redistricting changes virtually identical to his on the November, 2016 ballot through a citizens’ initiative.
Independent Maps, a non-partisan statewide coalition, by late July had gathered more than 210,000 of the roughly 290,000 valid signatures of registered voters that will be needed, a number equal to 8 percent of the total votes cast for governor in 2014. Coalition leaders have set a goal of 600,000 signatures, for a comfortable margin to cover the inevitable faulty signatures that will be tossed when the petitions are contested. The governor’s campaign operation could help guarantee the petition drive’s initial success. Just as importantly, his money could help fend off the inevitable legal challenges to the wording of the amendment itself, although the coalition has taken pains to draft language which hews closely to the road map laid out by a Cook County judge who ruled an earlier version of the amendment went beyond what’s allowed for a citizens’ initiative.
The framework outlined above isn’t the only way to structure a way out of the current impasse, of course, but rather an example of what might be possible if the current protagonists put the good of everyday Illinoisans above personal egos. It’s not rocket science, guys. It’s called statesmanship.
Correction | Aug. 27, 2015: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the year in which Rep. Michael Madigan became speaker of the House. (Return to the corrected sentence.)