CHICAGO — — All four Republican candidates for Illinois governor said fixing the state's economic woes would be among their top priorities if they win — an issue they'll be trying to distinguish themselves on in a state that's home to one of the nation's highest unemployment rates and a multibillion-dollar backlog of overdue bills.
In response to a campaign questionnaire from The Associated Press, the four contenders — state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner — cited the need to cut spending, lower taxes, get people back to work by creating a more business-friendly climate — and "all of the above." While offering only a few specifics, the four will no doubt be pressed on the issue in a series of upcoming debates leading up to the March 18 primary.
"Jobs. Jobs. And Jobs," wrote Rutherford, of Chenoa, a former vice president for ServiceMaster Co., in response to an AP question asking for each candidate's top three priorities if elected. "Illinois government finances are dire and our state is universally considered unfriendly to business. Building an environment that job creators are seeking and putting people back to work will help solve a lot of Illinois' financial and social ailments."
Those ailments include an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent as of November, the most recent date for which numbers are available. It was the third straight month that the rate dropped, but it was still above the national unemployment of 7 percent for the same month.
Lawmakers took steps last month to fix another massive fiscal problem, approving a plan supporters say will eliminate Illinois' $100 billion unfunded pension liability over 30 years. But the state isn't counting on any of those savings for at least another year — and it's possible the courts could find the new law unconstitutional and throw it out.
Meanwhile, a temporary income tax increase approved by Democrats in 2011 is set to be rolled back on Jan. 1, 2015. The Governor's Office of Management and Budget recently projected a loss of about $2 billion in revenue during the fiscal year that begins July 1 if that rollback occurs.
Brady, who has real estate development interests around his hometown of Bloomington, said the long-term solution to Illinois' problems is to "create an environment that fosters new investments and new jobs in the private sector."
"That environment includes eliminating needless government regulations, reducing the tax burden and working to further refine our workers compensation and tort systems," wrote the party's 2010 nominee. He said his second priority would make the "difficult decisions" to balance the budget without extending the temporary income tax hike.
"There is not an area of state government that can't do more with less," Brady said.
The candidates' answers didn't focus solely on the state's bleak economy.
Dillard, a lawyer from Hinsdale, called for reforming the budget and reducing taxes. But he also listed ethics reform in his top three, saying "pay-to-play" politics must end and noting that Illinois' widely publicized history of corruption also hurts the state's bottom line.
"Corruption is creating a negative for Illinois that affects our ability to attract and retain businesses to create jobs," he wrote.
Dillard said he would create an "Office of the Repealer," whose purpose would be to repeal and eliminate unnecessary laws, taxes, fees and rules.
Rauner, a wealthy venture capitalist from Winnetka and the only GOP candidate who has never held public office, said his goal was to "create a booming economy with more good paying jobs." But he also mentioned his push to establish term limits in Illinois — an effort he said is the only way to end corruption. He is leading a group that's trying to put a measure on the November ballot to limit lawmakers' terms to eight years, among other legislative changes.
"We need to drive results for taxpayers. Illinois has never spent more, but we have never received less in return," Rauner said.
A longtime supporter of charter schools, Rauner also listed "dramatically improve education" among his priorities.
In the Democratic primary, Gov. Pat Quinn faces Tio Hardiman, an anti-violence activist from Hillside. Quinn declined to participate in the AP's candidate questionnaires, but indicated in a year-end interview with the AP that he saw the economy playing a central role in the intensifying campaign, which he characterized as a "clash of values." He is pushing for a hike in the state's minimum wage, a proposal Rauner said he could support only along with other economic reforms, and which the other three GOP candidates oppose.
"I'm not going to let the clock get turned back by a bunch of folks who have views that I think are extreme and do not reflect the common good of Illinois," Quinn said. "We're not turning Illinois into Potterville. ... We believe in a Bedford Falls where you take care of your neighbor and you have community."
Hardiman said his top priority would be resolving the state's pension crisis, saying the current plan to cut the unfunded liability over 30 years is "ridiculous" because "nobody will be around in 30 years to be held accountable for another failed policy." He also said he wants to reduce violence statewide and better fund education.