Revival of Illinois Workers’ Comp Bill a Tale of Persuasion

By | June 7, 2011

Everyone on the Illinois House floor was watching the vote climb.

56…57…

In the waning hours of the legislative session, lawmakers were considering a huge overhaul of the state’s unwieldy workers’ compensation system. It had failed two days earlier, but its sponsors suddenly had brought it back for a second try.

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It needed 60 votes to pass, five more than it had gotten in the first vote. But since then, the key sponsors had spent hours pleading and twisting arms. And House Speaker Michael Madigan had summoned holdouts to his office for some of the personal persuasion for which he is legendary.

59…60.

Ultimately, the overhaul was approved 62-43. Gov. Pat Quinn has said he plans to sign it, potentially saving Illinois businesses more than $500 million, largely by cutting fees to doctors for treating work-related injuries.

The story behind the resurrection of the workers’ comp overhaul is a classic Springfield tale of power and persuasion. It demonstrates the hard-bargaining agenda legislative leaders set during the spring session, with the state facing serious questions about its business climate.

“I think the more people saw it, they realized this is probably as good as we were going to do at this point,” said Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat who sponsored the overhaul and led the lobbying for it.

In the first House vote two days earlier, Bradley thought his bill would pass easily with support from at least 20 Republicans. There had been wide consensus that the system in place was too costly and open to fraud.

But then House Minority Leader Tom Cross brought Republicans together for a closed-door meeting. They emerged united against the overhaul, mostly because of its potential harm to doctors.

“I don’t think anybody knew the Republicans were going to take a caucus position until the door opened and they came out of caucus,” said Michael Carrigan, president of the AFL-CIO, which had remained neutral on the bill.

Bradley went forward with the vote, despite knowing he was almost certain to lose.

During debate, Bradley repeatedly warned that this was the only version of the bill lawmakers would get to consider. If it failed, he warned, the Senate could approve parallel legislation ending workers’ compensation altogether and dumping 50,000 annual injury claims into the court system — a so-called “nuclear option.”

The bill failed anyway, with only 55 votes in favor. The push for a solution seemed over.

In the Senate, Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, began moving forward with the bill to abolish the system, passing it through committee and preparing for a final vote by the full chamber.

But, Bradley said, he decided to try one more time.

With Republicans still firmly opposed, he and other backers focused on rounding up votes from six of seven Democrats who didn’t support the bill the first time around. Two lawmakers who voted for the bill on its first try would not be present for the final vote.

Bradley, Raoul, Madigan and state insurance director Michael McRaith approached them all, trying to allay concerns that had thwarted the bill in the first round.

Yes, they told one, workers would still be able to get a second opinion from doctors. Yes, they said, your constituents would still be allowed to choose their own doctors. Yes, they informed another, the bill thoroughly protects injured workers’ rights.

But Madigan’s power to persuade — through his influence over the legislative process, political fundraising, and ultimately his members’ political fates — proved critical. The speaker supported the workers’ comp bill at least partly as a helping hand to business in the wake of the state’s income tax increase, which Democrats had sponsored.

Also on lawmakers’ minds at the end of the session was how budget cuts would affect their constituents and what new legislative maps would mean for their districts and their futures.

One Democrat the sponsors focused on was Rep. Ken Dunkin of Chicago, who had flatly told Bradley he would not vote for the workers’ comp bill because of philosophical misgivings. He called it a “transfer of wealth to CEOs.”

But then Dunkin met with Madigan at the capitol in the last few hours before the vote. When the time came, he voted for the overhaul.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown wouldn’t comment on how Madigan persuaded Dunkin. He referred questions to Dunkin, who declined several times to answer whether he was promised anything for his vote.

“You think he would offer me something? For li’l ol’ Ken Dunkin?” said Dunkin, whose diverse district that includes neighborhoods from the city’s wealthier Gold Coast to lower-income Woodlawn to Chinatown. Finally, he answered directly: “He did not offer me anything.”

With the final tally still uncertain, Bradley and the other sponsors still had to try for Republican support.

The Republicans objected to the cuts in doctors’ fees. Doctors are a major contributor to House Republicans; Cross has gotten more than $1 million in campaign contributions from the health-care field over his career.

At the same time, Republicans complained that Democrats had produced a deal doing little to address workers and their attorneys sometimes making claims for injuries that didn’t occur on the job.

“They did not take on their fundamental allies the unions and trial lawyers,” said Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.

Bradley and McRaith met with Rep. Dwight Kay, a Glen Carbon Republican who originally co-sponsored the bill but then removed his support.

Kay said they described the bill’s estimated savings, but used figures that he considered “fuzzy.” When Kay challenged their numbers, McRaith agreed with some of his objections, Kay said, but then simply removed the numbers from a fact sheet for lawmakers. Kay ultimately voted no.

Another issue was Bradley’s perceived flip-flop on calling the bill for a second vote. While many saw the maneuver as a clear pressure tactic, Bradley denies he deceived anyone, saying that deceive is “such a bad word.”

When the final tally was counted, the sponsors said there were a couple of surprises among the 62 yes votes: Dunkin, and one freshman Republican, Rep. Chris Nybo.

Bradley called Dunkin’s vote a “pleasant” surprise. He also had targeted Nybo, of suburban Elmhurst, but had not necessarily counted on his vote. Nybo later sent out a statement saying the bill “will improve our business climate.”

Bradley said he was fairly certain he had 60 votes, but that any last-second change would have doomed his efforts.

“I was trying to round up votes for what I thought was a good bill,” he said, adding with only a hint of smugness, “Honestly, I wanted at least 60.”

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