Thursday, August 18, 2011

Republicans say their time is coming in Illinois

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford takes the podium at the fair.
By Jamey Dunn

Illinois Republicans are optimistic about their party’s chances in the 2012 elections, if they can get their message across to voters.

“I think that America’s going to be looking at who is going to help lead us during an economically stressful time. Who’s going to help us with regards to jobs?” state Treasurer Dan Rutherford said at today’s Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair. He said Illinois Republicans need to reach outside of their traditional voting base and cannot count solely on the wave of popularity the Tea Party has found in other parts of the country. “The Tea Party brings a portion of the electorate, and more power to them in doing that. I just say that there is much more to wining a race in Illinois than just one specific segment. The traditional base of hard-core Republicans is not as large as the traditional base of hard-core Democrats. And for that reason, a candidate like me, who wins statewide races, has to understand that you need to reach into the independents and, to be very blunt with you, into the Democrats.”

Rutherford would not say if he plans to run for governor in the future. “I’m going to be a good state treasurer for the next few years, and we’ll make a decision later.”

Republicans believe their message of reduced spending and smaller government resonates in the down economy. “Incrementally, we continue to be the voice of reason,” said Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican. Brady said Illinois voters need to get to know some Republican candidates better. “I think the people of Illinois are on a learning curve.” He says that “learning curve” is what made the difference in his failed run for governor last year. “At the end of the day, the undecideds didn’t get to know me as well as they felt they knew Gov. [Pat] Quinn, a career politician,” he said. Brady, who has served in the General Assembly for more than for 15 years, would not say whether he plans a third shot at the governor’s office.

The message Republicans were pushing today was opposition to borrowing. Quinn has renewed his call for the state to borrow to pay some or all of the estimated $4 billion backlog of overdue bills that Illinois owes to schools, social services providers, local governments and others. State Comptroller Judy Barr Topinka said the state has a stack of more than 190,000 bills, the oldest of which dates April 19, 2011.

“I’m just thrilled to death that we’re paying bills from 2011. We finally got out of 2010. We don’t have the money to pay it. It’s just that simple,” she said. Topinka joined Rutherford and the Republican legislative leaders to oppose borrowing to pay late bills, which they say will only dig the state into a deeper hole. Republicans also warn that with the recent Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the country’s credit rating and a specific warning to Illinois from the bond rating agency Moody’s, the cost of borrowing for the state may soon increase. “We actually do have a plan. … It’s not rocket science,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. “It simply says you spend less money than you have coming in, and you start paying more bills down.” The Senate Republicans' plan called for $5 billion to $6 billion in budget cuts. Radogno said the plan would result in a budget surplus in five years.

Democrats criticized Republicans for not drafting their plan into legislation, saying such massive cuts to the state’s major spending areas of education, health care and human services are not so simple. They say some of the Republican plan would violate court orders and cause the state to miss out on substantial amounts of federal funding. “If there was an easy way out of this, we’d have figured it out a long time ago,” said Sen. John Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat. Sullivan sponsored several proposals to borrow to pay down the state’s backlog. He only called one of the bills, a proposal to borrow about $6.2 billion, for a vote, and it received a meager 19 “yes” votes. Sullivan said he is trying to sell lawmakers as well as voters on the idea, and he plans to push some version of the plan again. “I’m just trying to build a case,” he said.

Party chair Pat Brady address the crowd.
Both Sullivan and Quinn said the borrowing would actually be a restructuring of a debt the state already owes to those it has not paid for their services. Sullivan said he worries that businesses that work with the state may go under while Illinois fails to act quickly on the backlog. “I don’t even know how they're keeping the doors open in some instances.” He argues that the plan could help the state’s recovery. “Just imagine what putting $5 billion into the Illinois economy is going to do.”

In this year before the presidency and every seat in the General Assembly comes up for grabs, Illinois Republicans are working to raise the profile of their party and their message of fiscal responsibility. Republican Party Chair Pat Brady announced an Illinois straw poll — similar to the famous Iowa straw poll conducted last weekend — on Republican presidential candidates on November 5, one year before the election. Brady said the party plans to have polling locations in every county in the state. Brady put a positive spin on the spotty attendance at the Republican rally at the fair today, while noting that Democratic Party Chair and House Speaker Michael Madigan did not attend yesterday’s Democratic events. “This is a substantially better crowd than we had in the last off-]election] year, and we don’t bus people in because we gave them jobs. These are all people who came because they want to support the party.”


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