The tension was thick — and zingers about failure and toilets were at the tips of their tongues — as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner faced Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker for their last debate Thursday night in Downstate Quincy.
With just 26 days before Election Day, big questions were asked — and generally went unanswered.
Pritzker, a billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist, for the umpteenth time dodged questions about the rate of his proposed graduated income tax. And Rauner pledged big promises about changes he’ll make to the state during a second term, without explaining how he’d get a Democratic supermajority to go along with his plans.
“You’ve just heard a desperate rant by a failed governor who is in the final hours of his campaign and his governorship,” Pritzker said to applause after Rauner once again called the Pritzker a “bank robber” who got caught.
That was a reference to $330,000 Pritzker returned to Cook County for a property tax break he received in part by removing toilets from one of his mansions.
“You’re likely to hear more of that tonight because he’s got nothing else, just lies and excuses,” Pritzker said.
Several polls have shown Pritzker with a double-digit lead, and the Chicago Democrat chose to participate in just three televised debates, including the one in Quincy, where he could highlight a deadly Legionnaires’ outbreak at a veterans home there. The deaths, and an investigation by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, was quickly brought up at the hourlong debate.
On the same day Pritzker released a TV ad featuring a family member of a veteran who died of Legionnaires’ disease at the home, Rauner apologized to family members of those affected by the outbreak: “I am sorry for your loss. It is deeply painful.”
But the embattled Republican governor still asserted that the outbreak was dealt with “immediately.”
“When the Legionella infection occurred, immediately the first day, action was taken to keep the veterans safe,” Rauner said. “Water supplies were shut off. Windows were closed. Fountains were shut down. Bathtubs drained and no longer used. And the veterans were evaluated for their health condition. Those who were infected were treated properly. Everyone else was monitored, and the families of those veterans who showed some symptoms were notified immediately when a change in health condition of their loved ones.”
“No one is perfect. In retrospect we could all learn lessons about how to do things better, but the veterans were well served by the outstanding staff here,” Rauner said. “Action was taken immediately to keep them safe.”
Pritzker denied those claims, reiterating that 14 died and 70 others were sickened by the bacteria.
“It’s a shameful neglect of our veterans, who we should be standing up for everyday,” Pritzker said.
When asked about how he’d keep people from leaving the state, Rauner said Illinois is “hostile on taxes and regulations.”
He said Pritzker’s graduated income tax plan will “crush the middle class, crush job creators.”
“They will flood out and the sound of that flood will not be the sound of toilets being flushed, it’ll be the sound of businesses getting flushed down the drain in this state of Illinois,” Rauner said. “We need to cut the taxes, reform our state government and reduce the regulatory burden on our businesses and end the corruption that Mr. Pritzker is part of.”
One of the debate’s moderators, Bobby Oler of HOI in Peoria, said he has seen Pritzker “put the tap dancing shoes on” for questions about his proposed graduated income tax. Oler asked the Democrat what a teacher in Peoria, who makes an average of $51,480, would pay in income taxes under his plan.
Pritzker said the teacher “ought to get a tax break,” without providing specifics.
“He’s not answering your question,” Rauner said.
“Why not get a rate? We didn’t get a rate in the first forum. We didn’t get a rate in the ABC 7 debate,” Oler said. “This is your chance tonight in the last debate, can you give us a rate?”
“Well, let me tell you this, we want to make sure that we’re negotiating it with the people in the Legislature, members of the House and Senate who are representatives of the people,” Pritzker said to some laughs, and some applause. “And then, this is important, it’s got to go to a referendum of the people of Illinois.”
The two also sparred about education funding, with Pritzker telling Rauner a historic change in the funding formula “happened in spite of you, not because of you.” Rauner, in turn, said he “led” the efforts.
“If you’re going to interrupt,” Rauner told Pritzker, then paused for several seconds. “Be careful about the perjury, Mr. Pritzker.”
The embattled governor said he wants the state to have the biggest capital bill on record, which he said he could deliver with no new taxes by a “balanced budget,” more money from the federal government, expanding gaming and with public private partnerships: “We will have a booming economy, strong economic growth, the best education system in America.”
Pritzker said the governor made the same promises four years ago.
“He’s living in a state of denial, the rest of us are living in the state of Illinois,” Pritzker said.
* Debatus interruptus: Rauner and Pritzker bring sharp elbows to Sun-Times debate
• Read the full transcript of the Rauner-Pritzker debate at the Sun-Times
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• WATCH: Rauner, Pritzker face Sun-Times Editorial Board
* Rauner, Pritzker to meet jointly with Sun-Times Editorial Board
• Failure and fraud likely themes when Rauner, Pritzker meet for second debate
• Second Rauner-Pritzker debate spirals into squabble over scandals
• Taxes, toilets and trust liven first debate in Illinois governor race