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Illinois House rejects overhaul of workers’ compensation system

Gov. PQuinn. File Photo

Gov. Pat Quinn. File Photo

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Updated: July 7, 2011 3:03PM

SPRINGFIELD — A workers compensation package championed by Gov. Pat Quinn went down to dramatic defeat Sunday, killed by House Republicans who worried about its effect on doctors and hospitals.

The House vote on one of the ruling Democrats’ top legislative priorities of the spring was 55-39, with 19 voting present. That roll call fell well short of the 60-vote threshold needed to pass the House and go on to the governor.

“We cannot afford to nibble around the edges on workers compensation reform, and what we are doing is nibbling around the edges,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego), who voted against the plan.

The stunning loss highlighted a busy legislative day where Senate Republicans blocked a major Democratic borrowing plan; a Democratic-drawn congressional map plan advanced; and Quinn threatened to veto legislation that would raise utility bills for Commonwealth Edison customers.

Influenced by heavy lobbying from the Illinois State Medical Society, the workers compensation debate pivoted on steep losses doctors and hospitals would face from a 30-percent cut in fees for treating injured workers.

That cut represented the cornerstone of a plan that would have saved businesses up to $700 million and that passed the Senate by an overwhelming 46-8 vote on Saturday.

Standing in near-unanimous opposition, House Republicans also wanted the package sponsored by Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion) to include language that would strengthen the hand of employers if an injured worker sought compensation for an injury that did not occur in the workplace.

“House Republicans had a choice between enacting landmark reforms, or voting to support their own partisan agenda, and maintaining the status quo. Their political decision was made at the expense of workers and business owners in their districts,” Quinn spokeswoman Annie Thompson said.

A top business group joined the governor’s office in decrying the defeat of a measure that Democrats had hoped would blunt the hit that businesses took in January when Quinn signed off on a 46-percent hike in the corporate income tax rate.

“I understand the concerns of many that this didn’t go far enough. However, $700 million of savings to the Illinois business community was lost today over concerns the medical community was going to have to give up too much,” said Greg Baise, president of the Illinois Manufacturers Association.

The House vote now shifts the focus on workers compensation reform back to the Senate and to a House-passed bill that would blow up the century-old state system of awards claims to injured workers. The House bill would shift all of those cases into the circuit courts.

“For something that produces upwards of 20,000 cases a year or more, how’s the Illinois court system going to handle that?” Baise told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I guess it’s a lawyer’s delight.”

Also Sunday, Senate Republicans defeated a Democratic bid to borrow nearly $1.5 billion over seven years to pay down part of the state’s crushing backlog of unpaid bills. The measure failed by a 19-23 vote with 36 votes needed for Senate passage.

“It’s always a bad idea to borrow money when you don’t know how to repay it,” said Sen. Dale Righter (R-Charleston), who voted against the measure.

The one-sided loss involving the first piece of a four-bill, $6.1 billion borrowing proposal represented another significant defeat for Quinn: It effectively killed his hopes of righting the state’s bleak budget situation and persuading lawmakers this spring to authorize borrowing to pay unpaid state bills.

In February, the governor called for $8.75 billion in borrowing to deal with unpaid bills but had swung his support to the $6.1 billion borrowing plan pushed by Sen. John Sullivan (D-Rushville).

On another front, Quinn began the day Sunday by reiterating his vow to veto a five-year plan pushed by Commonwealth Edison to permit annual rate increases of 2.5 percent to modernize its electricity grid.

The governor issued a joint statement with Attorney General Lisa Madigan demanding the utility “not be given a blank check to spend billions of dollars at the expense of the hard-working men and women of our state.”

ComEd defended its proposal and accused the two top Democrats of miscasting its legislation.

“The Illinois Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, in fact, grows our economy, creates thousands of jobs and makes Illinois competitive by delivering reliable, high-quality electricity to businesses,” the company said in a statement.

The bill’s supporters in Springfield believe they are close to achieving the veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate that would allow the plan to become law regardless of whether Quinn vetoes it. The proposal is awaiting a House vote.

Finally, a Democratic plan to redraw the state’s congressional boundaries advanced out of a House panel on a 6-4 partisan roll call and is now positioned for a floor vote despite objections from a prominent government watchdog.

“The passage of this map over Memorial Day weekend without sufficient information for the public to decipher this proposal and without much notice is disappointing,” Whitney Woodward, a policy associate with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, told the House Redistricting Committee.

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