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Top GOP guv candidates offer few specifics on economic policy

Crain's Chicago Business

Thursday, June 23, 2022  |  Column  |  Steven Strahler

Focused on hot buttons, Darren Bailey and Richard Irvin stay vague on issues important to business.

Campaigning for governor while companies like Boeing and Caterpillar move their headquarters out of Illinois, the two leading Republican candidates—each backed by a local billionaire—offer few specific solutions to many business-climate issues bedeviling executives.

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, armed with $50 million from hedge fund mogul Ken Griffin, doesn't detail what economic development incentives he would offer to attract and retain companies, what business regulations he would eliminate or trim, or how he would change a costly workers' compensation system.

State Sen. Darren Bailey, likewise, won't spell out an economic development agenda. "Tax breaks aimed at one company are just bad policies," he says instead. "A better approach is implementing sound policies across the board that helps businesses grow and create good-paying jobs." He says he would "explore" reducing or eliminating the state income tax on an #ff0000 group of "working families and small businesses."

Bailey and Irvin are the front-runners among six GOP candidates in the June 28 primary. A recent poll showed Bailey, with a 38% share, leading Irvin almost 2 to 1. Shipping supplies magnate Richard Uihlein has given $9 million to Bailey and another $8 million to a PAC running ads against Irvin. The other contenders trailed far behind Irvin in the poll.

The campaign, like others, is consumed with attack ads focusing on hot-button social issues, crime and Trumpism, not fiscal and economic policy. With the primary rapidly approaching, voters wondering which candidate would do more for Illinois’ business climate and economy have little to go on.

Crain's offered Bailey and Irvin a chance to weigh in on fiscal and economic matters. Responding to a list of questions, they did get specific on a few points, such as repealing the state's clean energy act that phases out fossil fuel and other nonrenewable energy sources by mid-century at the risk of higher electricity rates and power outages.

"Pritzker’s radical energy tax hike legislation will result in skyrocketing electricity bills, rolling blackouts and massive job loss in Illinois," Irvin says. Bailey says he opposes broadening the state sales tax to include more services in exchange for a lower rate.

The candidates are vague on other fronts. Bailey says, for example, that making Illinois a destination for good-paying jobs "can only happen when we improve the job-creator climate in our state." Irvin says as governor he would cut income taxes (without detailing how much) and deliver "meaningful property tax relief," even though the state has no direct influence on local property tax levies. Even if it did, how would he compensate for reduced revenue? By "getting wasteful spending under control," he says, without elaborating.

As mayor of the state's second-largest city since 2017, Irvin supported local business initiatives, including a controversial communications tower facilitating high-speed trading crucial to Chicago's commodity and options exchanges. He says he cut red tape, reducing the time to get a business license from six months to 60 days. He also pushed for government consolidation, he says, resulting in savings that helped balance the city budget each year since he took office.

He won't comment on whether he'd favor the sales tax swap that Bailey opposes. Each rejects amending the state constitution to allow a graduated income tax.

Irvin blames "irresponsible decisions made by leaders of both political parties" for the state pension crisis and its $130 billion in unfunded liabilities. He said state employees in defined-benefit plans need "the kind of flexibility and mobility their private-sector peers already enjoy—making retirement savings more attractive to a younger generation while putting our finances on a more sustainable footing."

Bailey favors a 401(k)-like defined-contribution plan for new state employees, more buyouts of veteran ones and "honest conversations with state workers to gain reasonable adjustments to cost-of-living allocation and more participation in health insurance."

With public safety increasingly a Chicago business-climate issue in the wake of Loop looting and pandemic-related closures that threaten tourism, retail and office markets, each candidate would boost police presence on the streets. Irvin, highlighting his prosecutorial background, says he did just that as mayor, adding, "When rioters came to Aurora in 2020, I didn’t hesitate to call in the National Guard. I directed the police to close down highway ramps and arrest the lawbreakers.” Bailey says, "My preference will be for the city to work willingly with me, but if they won't, I will use the power of the line-item veto to force them to the table and keep families safe."

Both say they would repeal the SAFE-T Act signed by Pritzker, which included provisions ending cash bail and easing electronic monitoring standards. "The second thing I would do is make better appointments to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, which is letting out violent criminals on the street and making our communities less safe," Bailey says. "I would also end Illinois' status as a sanctuary state which has created an open invitation for violent offenders to find their way into our state."

Bailey says he would resist expanding workers' compensation coverage as more employees work from home. "I have no issue with paying workers for accidents at work, but why should businesses have to pay for accidents that did not occur at the workplace?" he asks. As businesses push to limit coverage to workplace accidents determined to be the primary cause of injuries, he adds, "We will only be able to lower costs if we take a serious look at this and require causation for payouts."

Bailey says he voted against the Senate bill that halted the planned phaseout by 2024 of the business franchise tax. Irvin also opposes the pause.

A question about repealing or modifying the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, which has inundated business with class-action lawsuits, provided each candidate an opportunity to lambast Michael Madigan or the legislative body he controlled as speaker for 36 years.

"Mike Madigan’s decision to hand policy control to the trial lawyers for decades has taken its toll on the state’s economy," Irvin says. "Alongside cutting income taxes, lowering property taxes, getting crime under control and rooting out corruption, curbing lawsuit abuse is an important element of a comprehensive economic growth strategy." Bailey says, "Illinois has a long history of being a haven for abusive lawsuits, and the legislature has been complicit in enacting legislation that has worsened a bad situation. I have consistently opposed these unnecessary efforts."