Gov. Pat Quinn and Comptroller Dan Hynes battled over whose tax hike plan was better Tuesday while trading blows over blame for grave robbing and setting violent criminals free.
"The governor has been very inconsistent," Hynes quipped early in an hourlong debate televised on ABC 7 Chicago. "But the one thing he has been consistent on is that he wants to tax the middle class."
"Taxing the middle class" served as Hynes' go-to rip, while Quinn called his challenger's budget plans "fantasy."
The two Chicago Democrats are vying to lead the party into the general election in the wake of the arrest and ouster of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Better Government Association. Daily Herald Managing Editor Madeleine Doubek was a panelist.
Both candidates want to raise taxes to bail the state out of a $13 billion shortfall, one that equals nearly half the total operating budget. Republicans are drawing a sharper contrast in their seven-way primary, with nearly all of them signing a pledge to oppose any tax hike whatsoever.
Details on Quinn's tax hike plan remain fluid.
In his State of the State speech last week, he didn't outline specifics for lawmakers, but he resurrected his original plan Tuesday to raise the income tax rate from 3 percent to 4.5 percent while providing tax relief for families of four making less than $60,000 yearly.
Hynes wants to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to bring progressive tax rates to Illinois, raising income taxes on wealthier residents. The three-term comptroller said Tuesday he wants a 3.5 percent income tax rate on those making more than $200,000 a year and a 7.5 percent rate on those making more than $1 million.
Hynes offered no alternative to his cornerstone tax plan when asked after the debate if Quinn's prediction might come true - that the referendum would either fail in the legislature or at the ballot box. The comptroller instead pointed to his plans to raise casino taxes and cigarette taxes in the short term.
But the driving force of Tuesday's duel in Chicago was the candidates' attempts to pin scandals on each other that might sink in with voters before the Feb. 2 primary.
Quinn alleged Hynes was incompetent as comptroller for failing to uncover a cemetery trust fund scam earlier, and for failing to spot the "grave robbing" at the South suburban Burr Oak Cemetery.
Quinn called it the "worst cemetery scandal in the history of the United States."
"It was his job to oversee that cemetery," he said.
Hynes is charged specifically with auditing the books of cemeteries, and he raised that in the debate as a defense, saying there was a "gaping hole" in oversight under the law.
Hynes continued to take shots at Quinn for letting more than 1,700 prisoners out under a stepped-up early release program aimed at saving money - an issue that serves as the basis for his attack ads on the governor.
Some of those released early had been imprisoned on violent offenses like domestic battery. Quinn says he told the corrections director not to grant release to such criminals.
Hynes called the fallout a "massive cover-up."
"People want answers and all you are getting is, 'Trust me. You know all you need to know about this,'" Hynes said.
Quinn rebutted that he put the inmates' names on the Internet and noted they were, on average, set to get out of prison within 37 days anyway.
In the heat of the exchange, Quinn said Hynes "smiles in your face, stabs you in the back. That is what he has done from Day One."
On the few issues that were discussed beyond taxes, Quinn and Hynes laid out opposing plans to solve the state's massive pension fund shortfall.
Quinn supports bringing new teachers and state employees into a pension system with fewer benefits. He called the current benefits "lavish" and "extravagant." Quinn doesn't have the support of the powerful teachers union.
Hynes does have the backing of the teachers union and doesn't support Quinn's pension system reforms. Hynes said he wants to get rid of "double-dipping" by retirees who take a new job with government.
Also, Hynes supports gay marriage and Quinn supports civil unions.
Toward the end of the contentious debate, both were asked if they would be friends after the Feb. 2 primary.
"Sure, absolutely," Hynes said. Quinn added, "I believe in being friends with everybody."