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Advocating for good government reform can feel a little like screaming into a cosmic void. For example, Chicago is the only major city in the nation to manage payment of its injured workers from a legislative committee. Running the program this way lacks transparency, creates poor oversight, and ultimately allows the executive branch to shirk its responsibilities to both workers and taxpayers. Again and again, good government reformers have called for moving the program to the executive branch. Again and again, those calls have been met with silence. But, every once in a while, the stars align. As we near the close of 2018, that time may have arrived for workers’ compensation.
The fight to reform workers’ compensation is especially challenging because Ald. Ed Burke, the longest-serving member of the Chicago City Council, is the chairman of the council’s finance committee, which runs the program. Is it a surprise to anyone that perhaps one of the most powerful politicians in Illinois is also in charge of a nearly $100 million-a-year city program? Of course not. What is more surprising is that, last Wednesday, 10 aldermen signed on to take that program away from him.
But, for those paying attention, even that is not so surprising. Federal agents have raided Burke’s ward and City Hall offices twice in the last month. He also is facing a tougher election fight than he has in a long while. Some political allies and mentees are trying to downplay their ties to him. A former aviation chief has accused him of inappropriately interfering in her work. The stars are lining up.
The proposal would move what is known as “the bureau of workmen’s compensation” to the city’s law department, similar to New York City’s program. Although it’s not specified in the legislation, it’s important that this “bureau” becomes an entirely administrative program, subject to the same rules and oversight under which every other city program operates. These rules are in place to stop the city bureaucracy from becoming a political bureaucracy. In addition, integrating workers' compensation into the law department as a full-fledged city program will open up what previously has been a black box to the human resource and finance departments -- departments that, along with the city’s lawyers, should be working to keep employees safe and healthy, as well as lower the city’s long-term costs.
The proposal is a simple one and the time seems right. In fact, most of the mayoral candidates support moving workers’ compensation to the executive branch, regardless of whether Burke remains chairman of the finance committee. Even so, no one should think this is going to be an easy fight. Burke still has a lot of friends and a lot of campaign cash. More sitting aldermen need to sign on to the ordinance. Aldermanic candidates can help force the issue by making it part of their campaign platforms. Every candidate should be taking a position.
Or, in an election season full of surprises, here is one that could really light up the galaxy. Burke could embrace this change. Moving workers’ compensation to the executive branch is not about Burke. It’s not about any one person. It’s about doing what makes sense for the professional, transparent management of the city for taxpayers. Imagine if Burke, after wielding the power of the finance committee for decades becomes its reformer. It’s as unlikely to happen in Chicago as spotting a shooting star. But, it would certainly guarantee him a place in the constellations, settled in among power brokers and political masterminds, the likes of which only a state like Illinois can produce.
Think about it, Ald. Burke. February’s election is just around the corner.
This story was produced by the Better Government Association, a nonprofit news organization based in Chicago.