Governor’s race spirals into fantasy land

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One of television’s hottest dramas is playing out daily right here in Illinois.

No, it’s not “The Good Wife,” “Shameless” or “Chicago Fire,” and “Breaking Bad” isn’t coming back with a Windy City setting.

I’m talking about the rock’emsock’em, neck-and-neck race for governor, starring Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn, Republican nominee Bruce Rauner, and a deluge of attack ads they’ve been bombarding us and each other with for months.

Curiously, the ads borrow heavily from the worlds of cartoons and literary fiction — genres where political campaigns don’t typically get their broadcast ammunition.

In one TV spot the Rauner folks rechristen a Disney character, Pinocchio, as “Quinnochio” — a chronic liar with a string of broken promises about jobs, taxes and corruption.

Not to be outplayed in fantasyland, Quinn strategists borrow a page from Dickens by casting Rauner as a Scrooge-like misanthrope — a miserly tycoon who hides millions from tax collectors while calling for an end to the minimum wage.

It’s must-see TV, at least the first couple airings — funny, smart and extremely entertaining — and it makes you laugh, cry and then, if you’re running a good government watchdog organization, cry some more at the willful distortions of reality, and the abject failures to address serious policy issues.

Considering Illinois’ monumental fiscal and ethical challenges, voters deserve honest answers to tough questions about what the candidates plan to do if they win on Nov. 4.

Some of that useful information should come out in series of candidate debates beginning this week. And we’re doing our part to educate voters before the election.

The Better Government Association and another reform organization, Reboot Illinois, teamed up again to ask Quinn, Rauner and Libertarian nominee Chad Grimm a series of good government questions.

We partnered with Reboot to survey candidates for governor before the March primary, and now we’re back with a new questionnaire that features six essay questions about their plans to tackle some of the key reform issues facing Illinois, including pensions, taxes, streamlining and ethics.

Many of the differences are stark, and worth paying attention to between the negative ads:

  • On taxes and spending, Rauner says cuts alone can’t dig Illinois out of its financial hole, so he wants to gradually roll back the temporary income tax increase to 2010 levels, and replace some of the revenue by expanding the sales tax to include a variety of non-essential services.

Quinn denounces that approach, saying it would shift the tax burden to working families, leave a gaping hole in the state budget and provide billions less for schools.

He favors a permanent extension of the income tax before the phase out begins on Jan. 1, and hopes to round up enough legislative support to get it passed in the fall veto session that kicks off two weeks after the election.

Rauner is urging lawmakers to postpone any major decisions until the next governor and General Assembly are sworn in early next year.

  • On pension reform, Quinn remains confident the Supreme Court will uphold the legality of the partial fix approved last year, but he’s pledging to work with lawmakers on a “Plan B” if the court finds it unconstitutional.

Rauner predicts a Supreme Court reversal, and says the answer is a new approach that protects benefits already earned by retirees and current employees, but implements a 401k-style plan going forward.

Quinn calls that too risky for state employees, and too expensive on the front end, but Rauner says the long-term savings are worth it.

  • On the ethics front, Rauner wants to attack conflicts of interest by banning outside income for legislative leaders, which amounts to a frontal assault on two Democratic powerhouses — House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President

John Cullerton — who have lucrative law practices in addition to their elected positions.

Quinn is silent on that issue.

  • The most notable proposals from Grimm, the Libertarian candidate, are to eliminate pensions altogether, and de-criminalize minor offenses to reduce the cost of incarceration. He is also pledging to be Illinois’ most transparent governor.
  • All three candidates agree on one thing: Illinois still has way too many units of local government, and an Rx for the bureaucratic bloat is a “smart streamlining” diet consisting of mergers, consolidations and phase-outs, which the BGA is also prescribing.

You can read all the candidate answers to our questionnaire, in their own words, at bettergov.org or rebootillinois.com.

It’s a chance to get some valuable information before you decide which candidate is up to the daunting task of walking the state back from the edge of the fiscal and ethical cliff.

But no worries. If you’re still craving more drama, a new round of creative attack ads is in production as we speak.

Who knows — we may see more fictional characters.

My granddaughters like Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck, so I’m wondering if the candidates are planning cameo roles in their new spots for those iconic toons?

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.

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