Illinois Governor Seeks to Emulate States With Race-to-the-Bottom Policies
That Hurt Their Own Business Climates and Citizens
Statement from Illinois Trial Lawyers President John Cooney
The so-called “religious freedom” measure recently approved in Indiana was so egregious an affront to basic civil rights that major corporations, business organizations and celebrities swiftly condemned it, and the state’s largest newspaper pleaded for an immediate fix to a law that caused “enormous harm to our state and potentially our economic future.”
In Wisconsin, job growth lags behind the nation. As the Associated Press reported last weekend, our neighbor to the north ranked 40th in private sector job growth for the 12 months ending last September, well behind Illinois.
These are the states whose business and legal climates Gov. Bruce Rauner so fervently wishes to emulate – those implementing race-to-the-bottom policies that hurt their own business prospects and citizens. As in Indiana and Wisconsin, the so-called reforms trumpeted by Bruce Rauner’s “turnaround” agenda are nothing more than spin that if made into law will leave the average Illinoisan dizzy and with less wealth, real income, and economic security.
After being propelled to the governorship with a record $60 million dollars – money mostly raised from the country’s wealthiest families and businesses – and offering few specifics but plenty of platitudes and pleasant promises, Rauner now demands that lawmakers roll back the financial safeguards that our state’s tort and workers’ compensation systems afford to the vast majority of Illinoisans. If successful, Rauner and his allies will only worsen the position of an embattled middle class that has suffered a substantial decline in its financial security and real wages for the last forty years.
Only Insurance Companies Pocketing Savings from Previous Workers’ Comp Changes
In 2011, at the urging of business and insurance companies, a workers’ compensation “reform” package became law in Illinois. To lower costs for businesses, workers gave up longstanding rights; insurance companies, in return, were to be transparent with pricing and pass savings along to employers through premium reductions of nearly 20 percent, as recommended by The National Council on Compensation Insurance.
As it turns out, only the workers kept their end of the bargain. Employers have yet to see an equivalent decrease in their premiums. Instead, insurance companies have pocketed the difference — estimated somewhere between $625 million and $1 billion — while disingenuously continuing to blame the negotiated financial safeguards that help workers when they are badly hurt or killed on the job.
There are 330 insurance companies competing for and writing workers’ compensation insurance in our state because it is the second most profitable line of insurance after auto insurance, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance. Even amid their calls for further eroding workers’ rights, the insurance industry continues to make record profits at the expense of business owners and the financial wellbeing of those injured or killed on the job.
The False Promise of ‘Tort Reform’
The fact is that very few Americans ever file lawsuits. In Illinois, more than 70 percent of court actions are initiated by businesses suing other businesses or individuals for money. Gov. Rauner has not proposed limiting the ability of corporations, banks and investment companies, like the one that made him rich, to use the court system. Since 2007, the number of all civil cases in Illinois courts is down 26 percent. As for medical malpractice cases, the number brought in our state has steadily declined over the past decade; it’s fallen over 40 percent since 2003.
When very wealthy citizens of our state are sickened or disabled due to someone else’s wrongdoing, they need not worry as to whether the resources will be there to care for them. They won’t face the possibility of destitution, losing their home and life savings. But, that’s not the case for most Illinoisans, who must turn to our courts for help if they are to have any hope of avoiding ruin when they are unable to work or care for themselves.
If Gov. Rauner and his allies want to have a debate over what justice means for someone who lost a child due to a physician’s gross negligence, a worker maimed because his plant didn’t want to spend a few extra dollars for safer equipment, or for an individual killed when shrapnel severed their carotid artery after a defective airbag inexplicably exploded in their face, let’s have that debate and not hide behind other issues. The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association wishes Gov. Rauner the best in tackling the state’s true challenges, but linking them to unrelated matters is placing extremist ideology and the politics of greed before the best interests of our state’s citizens.
Illinois Deserves Better than a Race to the Bottom
Gov. Rauner, a multi-millionaire who owns nine houses, has suggested workers should fund a higher minimum wage by weakening currently modest workplace protections and forfeiting the right to reasonable compensation for those who suffer severe or catastrophic injuries. It would be a tremendous misinterpretation of last year’s election results to believe that Illinoisans want to place business profits, at record highs in 2014, and the interests of the monied and powerful above injured workers and victims of malfeasance. It also defies belief that Illinoisans voted to support weak laws that allow negligent drivers, polluters, careless professionals and derelict corporations to escape accountability when their actions hurt others.
Eroding the constitutional rights of citizens to access the courts that their tax dollars fund would send the message that our civil justice system is mainly for the use of corporations and the wealthy, rather than something that belongs to everyone, regardless of their means.
Gov. Rauner’s proposals should be seen for what they are: a declaration of war against the financial security and prospects of middle and lower income Illinoisans by Rauner and the fellow millionaires and billionaires who put him in office. Illinois lawmakers would do well to reject race-to-the-bottom policies that leave most of their constituents poorer and more vulnerable, while benefitting only a few at the very top, who have done just fine and work in very safe office suites and boardrooms.