By Bill Lueders
Most people in Wisconsin don’t know the Labor and Industry Review Commission even exists, unless or until it makes decisions affecting their lives.
LIRC, an independent administrative agency, hears appeals of state rulings regarding unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation and equal rights — decisions that can be costly for employers and their insurers. Staffed with more than a dozen attorneys and overseen by three full-time commissioners, it handles about 3,500 cases a year.
The commissioners are appointed by the governor to serve staggered six-year terms. This timeline and a retirement have allowed Republican Gov. Scott Walker to replace all three commissioners installed by his Democratic predecessor, Jim Doyle, in less than 2-1/2 years.
Walker picked former Wisconsin first lady Laurie McCallum, a longtime LIRC attorney and former state Personnel Commission chairwoman, to succeed commissioner Jim Flynn, whose term expired in March 2011. He tapped Bill Jordahl, until recently a lobbyist for Alliant Energy, to take over for Ann Crump, whose term ended in March.
And on Aug. 5, Walker named Waukesha County Supervisor David Falstad to replace Robert Glaser, who retired at age 72, with two years left on his second term.
McCallum, now LIRC chairwoman, said she and other commissioners “always try to look at the facts of each individual case and issue a decision that’s fair.” She doesn’t think that will change.
But Appleton attorney John Edmondson, who has handled dozens of LIRC cases since 1986, foresees “a dramatic effect.” Walker’s appointees might sometimes still side with workers, but overall will be “more likely to render decisions favorable to employers and insurance companies.”
Edmondson initially worked as a lawyer for Wausau Insurance, defending against worker claims. Back then, Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson was picking the commissioners and, Edmondson said, “Those were good days for the defense.”
In 1994, Edmondson opened his own law practice and began representing injured workers. “I had my heart reinserted into my chest,” he quipped.
Edmondson was the attorney in a case last fall where, he said, two LIRC commissioners “bent over backwards” to deny benefits to an injured worker. Glaser, the third commissioner, issued a stern dissent. Edmondson appealed, and on Aug. 1, a Brown County Circuit Court judge reversed LIRC and awarded the man full disability.
But here’s the rub: One of the commissioners in the overturned majority, which Edmondson accused in a brief of having “concocted a fanciful, make-believe assertion” to skew the outcome, was Crump, a Doyle appointee.
Glaser, a one-time officer with United Steelworkers of America, credits the commission for managing to “keep politics out of the decisions.” He’s pleased that Falstad was picked as his replacement: “Dave’s a conservative, but he’s a fair and decent guy.”
The political leanings of LIRC commissioners, past and present, are not hard to discern.
Falstad, who previously served on LIRC as a Thompson appointee, has given $8,450 to Republicans and conservative judicial candidates since mid-2008, state records show, including $2,310 to Walker. Jordahl has given more than $4,000 during this period to Republicans, including $300 to Walker.
McCallum is a relative piker, with a single $15 donation to Supreme Court Justice David Prosser.
Meanwhile, the three Doyle-appointed former commissioners — Crump, Glaser and Flynn — collectively gave around $7,500 to Democrats and judicial liberals during this time. This included $5,400 to Tom Barrett, Walker’s challenger in 2010 and again in 2012.
Observers on both sides think ideology matters.
William Sachse, a Milwaukee attorney who specializes in worker’s comp, cheered Jordahl’s appointment in remarks prepared for a business-group presentation, saying this pick “could make its decisions friendlier to employers.”
Jordahl vows to be fair and impartial: “You look at the facts, you look at the law, and that’s what you decide things on.”
Those on the losing side on LIRC’s decisions, including workers denied benefits, might see it differently.