SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers on Thursday cast their first vote on legislation to overhaul the state’s workers’ compensation system.

By Diane Lee

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers on Thursday cast their first vote on legislation to overhaul the state’s workers’ compensation system.

All agreed something needs to be done to help improve the state’s business climate. But it won’t be the Senate Republican’s version.

Senators voted down Senate Bill 1349 on a 25-6 vote, with 28 lawmakers voting “present.” A majority of lawmakers agreed the state needs to revamp workers’ compensation to reduce costs for businesses, but Democrats said it needs to be a plan on which everyone can agree.

State Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, was chief sponsor of the legislation.

“You don’t reduce costs, you don’t lower rates, without substantial reform,” McCarter said. “You can’t put a Band-Aid on this and just hope that it gets better. Predominant cause is the foundational principle to changing this system.”

The plan proposed to address fraud, cut medical fees, and deny compensation for job-related injuries resulting from alcohol and drug use. It also would have required employees to prove that the workplace was more than 50 percent responsible for job-related injuries or illnesses. Employers would get to choose the doctors.

State Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, said the legislation would give Illinois businesses the first sign of hope since the recent tax increase, which hiked corporate income taxes by 45.9 percent, and the personal income tax by 67 percent.

“Small businesses to our largest employers such as Caterpillar support and need this bill passed so that they can compete in Illinois,” Duffy said. “It is time to put job creators first, not special interests groups. This workers’ compensation bill will resuscitate our injured job market. This bill is our first step towards recovery.”

State Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, agreed. She said Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor regularly visits businesses in her district attempting to lure them away.

“Workmans’ compensation reform will allow me to have at least one tool in my box that will help me at least retain these businesses that are extraordinarily important to the viability of McHenry County,” Althoff said.

State Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, said the No. 1 complaint among businesses is workers’ compensation costs, which he said is out of line with neighboring states.

“Sen. McCarter’s bill does nothing to harm a legitimately injured worker,” Dillard said. “But it certainly helps employers who are innocent when it comes to the cost of operating in the state that has a system that is sometimes laden with fraud.”

Some Democrats argued about the constitutionality of such legislation, and employees losing the right to pick their own doctors under McCarter’s proposal.

State Sen. William Haine, D-Alton, agreed that reforms are needed to the system. But he called McCarter’s proposal “a complicated deficient answer to a complicated problem.”

“Most of us on this side earnestly want to do something for business,” Haine said. “Unfortunately, there are too many questions in this for us to be able to vote for it. We voted for it, without questioning anything in 2005. I don’t want to make that mistake again.”

State Sen. President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said he agreed with parts of the proposal, but said it also raised too many questions. He said the legislation needs to be fair to both businesses and employees. Cullerton said Democrats will return with a proposal in the first week of May on which all parties can agree.

“We want to make sure we’ve got the support of the governor, so we can pass it,” Cullerton said. “Because, as you know, there are many folks that are affected by this, and it is probably one of the most tricky political bills to deal with and it is very difficult to thread the needle. But I am confident that we will do we so when we come back.”

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, said McCarter’s proposal isn’t soup yet, but commended him for leading the discussion on reforms. Raoul is expected to sponsor the Democrat’s version of workers’ compensation reform.

“I sincerely want to do something about workers’ compensation,” Raoul said. “And I know that our Senate president is committed to doing something about workers’ compensation. I know that Minority Leader Radogno is committed to doing something about workers’ compensation. And we shall work together doing it, but we shall do it right.”

Haine, Cullerton and Raoul were among those voting present.

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