Thursday, January 23, 2014

Republican candidates retract their claws for Peoria debate

By Jamey Dunn

Republican candidates for governor toned down the personal attacks and played up their experience and electability during a primary election debate this evening.

When the four candidates came together last week, they spent much of the time going after each other. Tonight’s debate, held in Peoria, was more subdued. The candidates covered a lot of old ground, such as questions over the minimum wage. They also fleshed out some of their policy visions, which included eliminating the Illinois State Board of Education and cutting state funding for Amtrak train service.

Venture capitalist Bruce Rauner focused on what he says are his four priorities: improving the economy, cutting government spending, reforming education and imposing term limits on state elected officials. In addition to running for governor, Rauner is backing a push to put a constitutional amendment on the general election ballot that would limit legislators to eight years in office.

Rauner said that if elected, he would advocate for moving state workers into 401(k)-type retirement plans. He also said workers should receive merit pay for increasing productivity and meeting goals. He said he thinks former Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels was the “the best governor in America.” Rauner said: “He brought 30 superstars from the Indiana business community to the state capital, allocated responsibility and had them oversee the government. I will do exactly the same thing here.”

Daniels put a merit pay system in place in Indiana and effectively ended collective bargaining for public employees through an executive order in 2005. He was able to do that because the collective bargaining provisions were originally put in place through a previous executive order in 1989. Indiana lawmakers voted to codify Daniels' move in 2011, so future governors would not be able to restore collective bargaining with their executive power. Daniels signed that legislation into law.

“He used executive order and the power of the government office to stand up to the power of the government union bosses that control the state governments around the nation and are driving up costs and driving down productivity,” Rauner said. Since collective bargaining rights are written into Illinois law, such a move may not be so simple, or even possible, here.

While Rauner said the recent pension reform legislation was marginal and called it a “Band-Aid on an open wound,” Sen. Bill Brady said his vote in favor of the bill illustrates his ability to make difficult decisions. “I know what it’s like to take the tough vote. That was meaningful. You know, it wasn’t easy to tell people who paid in the system, we’re going to cut the way their pension grows.” But Brady said it would save taxpayers money and ensure that benefits are there for retirees in the future.

When asked what else he might do to cut government spending, Brady, who is from Bloomington, said he would eliminate the Illinois State Board of Education. “Partly because it saves money. But mostly because it will end the bureaucratic red tape that harms our children’s educational opportunities every day,” he said of the proposal. Brady said he would instead form a smaller education agency that would work directly under the governor.  Former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich had a similar plan. While he was able to reduce the size of the workforce at ISBE and other state agencies, he was never able to fully eliminate the agency.

Brady did take some digs at his fellow candidates. But he did so while rarely naming names and in a way that would have likely passed by the casual political observer. He did call out Rauner and Sen. Kirk Dillard on their stances on the minimum wage. Brady said the debate over the minimum wage that has gone on during the primary campaign has “damaged the brand’ of the Republican Party in the state. “Even businesses don’t want to see a cut in the minimum wage. They don’t want to see their employees' morale reduced and pay cut.” He added that the state cannot afford to increase the minimum wage.

Rauner, who is from Winnetka, has said in the past that he wanted to lower the minimum wage. He later reversed that statement, saying he would support an increase under certain circumstances. “It’s a double-edged sword ... and we need to be very thoughtful and cautious in our consideration of it,” he said during tonight’s debate. “Raising the minimum wage can help struggling families. However, raising the minimum wage can hurt small-business owners and can cause them to leave or close their doors or replace workers with machines. And that can end up hurting the very struggling families, struggling workers, it's designed to help.” He said he would back an increase if it came coupled with “comprehensive pro-business reforms,” such as worker's compensation changes and tax reforms.

Dillard said he does not support an increase to the minimum wage. However, he said that local marketplaces should “set the upper limits of the minimum wage.” He said, “It is clearly needed to be higher in places like Chicago than it would be in rural Tennessee.” Dillard added, “No one should be raising a family on a minimum wage.” He said elected officials should instead work to ensure that better paying jobs are available.

Gov. Pat Quinn, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, supports increasing the minimum wage.

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford agreed with Dillard. “We don’t want to have this be the base to which people try to aspire to, just to be at minimum wage.” Rutherford said he does not think the minimum wage can be increased now but said he is not closed off to the idea of discussing an increase in the future. “The idea of where we go in the future on the minimum wage is going to be contingent upon many other factors out there: where we are in the growth of this economy, where we are in regards to other business factors going on out there, where we are in regards to other taxes on our businesses.”

Generally Rutherford, who is from Chenoa, was the one candidate who discussed leaving room for negotiating most major issues if he becomes governor. He said he does not want to see the current income tax increase, which is due to begin stepping down in 2015, extended. However, he said he would come to the office with “everything on the table” so he could try to hammer out some major reforms. On the flip side, Brady vowed to veto any extension of the increase if he ends up behind the governor’s desk.

Rutherford did seem certain of at least one thing: He is unhappy with Amtrak. “There’s too many times you’re sitting there in a cold gravel parking lot waiting for a train that is four hours late,” he said when asked about state funding for the train service. Rutherford said that unless Amtrak could make its trains run on time, he does not support the state funding it.

When it came to making the case for their ability to win the general election, Rutherford was the most animated. He said he is a moderate who has won a statewide election and can reach out to diverse communities of voters. “I’m a reasonable Republican," Rutherford said. “I am not a Republican with horns and a tail.”

Brady said he could build off the name recognition he created with voters during his failed general election run against Quinn in 2010. He said his message could resonate with voters of all political stripes. “I don’t care if you’re an independent, Democrat or Republican, you can’t be happy with the highest unemployment [rate] practically in the nation,” Brady said of this race, “We’ll finish the job this time.” 

Dillard, who is from Hinsdale, said his suburban connections, along with his ties to downstate -- he attended Western Illinois University and was married in central Illinois -- make him the ideal candidate. He also played up his executive experience as former Gov. Jim Edgar's chief of staff. Dillard said he is the only GOP hopeful who can win the general election. “I can guarantee you that all four of us up here us agree on one thing, and that’s that Pat Quinn needs to go, and that for too long, this state’s been controlled by one party and one city. We need to restore the political balance of Illinois.”

In the one of the most direct attacks during the debate, Dillard said that the negative press Rauner has begun to receive makes him a risky candidate. Most recently, court documents have surfaced tying Rauner’s former company, GTCR Golder Rauner, to neglect cases in nursing homes the company had invested in. In once case, a Florida jury awarded a $1 billion settlement to the family of Arlene Townsend, who died in one of the nursing homes at 69 years old after suffering more than a dozen falls and a hip fracture that went untreated for a week. “The drip, drip, drip, drip of stories day in and day out about Mr. Rauner’s business dealings and his history of pay-to-play activity will wash away our chances as a party to ever get rid of Pat Quinn in November,” Dillard said.

 Rauner did not respond to Dillard’s statement. Instead, he emphasized his business pedigree without going into the specifics of his business dealings and alluded to his vast wealth as a positive. “I’m not out looking for political career. I don’t need a job. I can’t be bought, intimidated. bribed, influenced. I can just stand up and fight for taxpayers, schoolchildren, homeowners, small-business owners,” he said. “I am not the problem. Everyone that I am running against has been part of the problem for decades.”

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