CHICAGO — Gov. Bruce Rauner has begun putting a finer point on his legislative agenda, telling voters, elected officials and newspaper editorial boards during a tour of Illinois last week that his business-friendly plan is vital to improving the state's economy.
During appearances in which he made several provocative comments, the Republican tried to build support for his proposals before legislators return to Springfield this week. Among them are a reduction in the cost of workers' compensation insurance, tighter restrictions on eligibility for unemployment benefits and changes to the judicial system. He said he would back a modest increase in the minimum wage if the Democratic-controlled Legislature supports his plans.
"If we make those kinds of changes, we'll increase our competitiveness, we'll grow more jobs," Rauner said during a stop in the Chicago suburb of Bedford Park.
Many Democrats, labor unions and the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association have heavily criticized Rauner's proposals, calling them anti-worker and questioning his priorities amid a serious budget crisis.
Indeed, Rauner told the Chicago Tribune's editorial board that he plans to "leverage" the budget crisis to get the Legislature to back his plans.
Here's a closer look at some of the new details in Rauner's agenda:
High on the list of Rauner's priorities is reducing the amount employers pay for workers' compensation insurance. Illinois currently ranks 7th nationwide for the highest cost per $100 of salary, according to the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, he notes.
Rauner said one of the reasons for high costs is that Illinois compensates workers for injuries that are related in any way to their job. He wants to raise that standard so workers only would be compensated if an on-the-job accident is more than 50 percent responsible for the injury. He also wants to cut the fees paid to some medical providers by 30 percent, and end compensation for injuries that occur while an employee is traveling to and from work.
Opponents say the changes create a system that's stacked against workers, who could be burned, maimed or injured in other ways but receive no compensation. They also say changes approved in 2011 created huge savings, but insurance companies aren't passing those savings along to employers.
Labor unions also worry that changes could create a disincentive for employers to provide safe workplaces.
Rauner said if the changes are enacted, he'll support increasing the minimum wage by 25 cents per year beginning in 2016, reaching $10 per hour by 2022. That's much slower than Democrats would like.
Rauner wants to make it more difficult for plaintiffs in lawsuits to "venue shop," or to file cases in courts they believe will be friendlier to their cases. He would allow lawsuits to be filed in locations only where corporations have an office or do business. The plan also would allow for lawsuits to be dismissed if defendants aren't Illinois residents or the business transaction in question doesn't take place in Illinois.
John Cooney, president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, said the state already has a system in place for attorneys to argue — and a judge to decide — whether a lawsuit is filed in the proper venue. He also opposes Rauner's proposal to only allow a company to be sued in a county where it has an office, noting that many companies don't have offices in Illinois and that it might be too difficult for the average person to sue such companies in out-of-state courts.
Rauner told the Daily Herald's editorial board that he thinks the Illinois Supreme Court is part of a "corrupt system" because justices can get campaign donations from attorneys who argue before the court. He said he'd favor merit selection of judges over elections, and he wants to ban trial lawyers from making campaign contributions.
The governor later told the Quad-City Times that he didn't mean to single out the high court, adding "I probably didn't use words carefully enough."
Cooney called the comments "preposterous" and out-of-line for a chief executive.
"He owes the state an apology," he said.
The governor said he doesn't think Illinois' unemployment insurance system is fair to employers, noting that Illinois ranks 9th in the U.S. in unemployment insurance tax costs for the average fulltime employee, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Rauner said he'd like to impose tougher penalties for fraud and strengthen enforcement, and he wants to further restrict worker eligibility for unemployment benefits.
Currently, any worker who makes $1,600 or more from an employer during a recent 12-month period prior to being laid off is eligible to receive unemployment benefits. Rauner said that minimum amount was established 30 years ago and should be increased, though his office didn't say what the new amount should be.
Lester reported from Springfield.
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