NORMAL, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — On Nov. 8, Illinoisans have a major decision to make: re-elect Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker or elect Republican challenger Darren Bailey.
The pair faced off for a debate Thursday evening at the Braden Auditorium on the campus of Illinois State University for a televised debate, the first of two hosted by Nexstar Media Group.
You can watch the full first debate between Pritzker and Bailey in the video player at the top of this page.
The evening began with questions about the SAFE-T Act, the police and criminal justice reform package featured in headlines for much of 2022.
The controversy lies at the heart of one provision that will eliminate cash bail in Illinois. That provision is set to take effect on Jan. 1 of 2023.
Pritzker previously said he was willing to consider making some changes to the bill. During the debate, Pritzker was not able to name a specific change he would make, but he did say clarifications in the law were needed.
Bailey has called for the repeal of the SAFE-T Act as a whole. However, eliminating the SAFE-T Act would also get rid of new programs for police like mental health screenings for officers and the use of body cameras statewide.
When pressed on that reality, Bailey doubled down on his claim and said he would repeal the SAFE-T Act.
“The SAFE-T Act was concocted at 4 a.m. in the wee hours of the morning without any police involvement at all. We need to come and sit at the table and deal with the real problems,” Bailey said.
Criticism for the bill has come from many directions. In an op-ed published last month, former Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel said of the SAFE-T Act, “The police officer who should be patrolling your community will be on the street less — in most cases, far less. You could have officers doing paperwork for six to eight hours on a single arrest, which is unacceptable. The law will also create apathy and low morale.”
Additionally, Illinois’ and Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Bailey, partially because of his response to the SAFE-T Act.
One criticism from police officers is that the bill makes their jobs more difficult. Pritzker responded by saying his administration is providing more funding for police and making sure they have the equipment they need to solve crimes faster.
“One of the reasons that I invested in our crime labs is to make sure we could eliminate, as we did, the rape kit backlog in our state,” Pritzker said. “We had 2,000 rape kits leftover from the last Republican governor, and we’ve solved that by actually investing. Darren Bailey voted against that.”
Meanwhile, when asked if he would support any form of eliminating cash bail, Bailey dodged the question and said lawmakers need to meet with everyone on future legislation and spent time criticizing the bill further.
Another topic that dominated the debate floor was the economy.
Bailey has previously pledged to cut spending on the state level. Bruce Rauner, Illinois’ last Republican governor, wanted to implement a similar strategy. However, social services and state agencies came to a halt during the two-year budget impasse under his leadership.
Without shutting down social services, Bailey proposed reprioritization of spending and a zero-based budget.
“When there’s a problem, JB just happily throws cash at the problem without any accountability or transparency,” Bailey said.
When presented with the possibility of a Democratic-led House and Senate saying no to a zero-based budget, Bailey insisted he would bring everyone to the table and create unity.
Illinois has seen a slew of tax increases since Pritzker took office. Some of those taxes mentioned in the debate were the increases to vehicle registration fees, the motor fuel tax, and the state sales tax.
Pritzker was asked if he would consider rolling back any taxes due to rising inflation. He responded by initially sidestepping the question and praising the infrastructure bill he passed. He said if the state could continue to balance the budget, he could make tax cuts permanent.
Pritzker was reminded that in 2020, he failed to change the state’s income tax from a flat system to a graduated one to provide some residents with financial relief.
He said he would not pursue the change in a second term, but said he believes wealthier people should not be the only residents reaping the benefits of a healthy economy.
When challenged on how Pritzker would make wealthier people pay more under a flat tax system, he had two solutions. He said closing corporate loopholes for businesses that do not need it brought $700 million more into the state government. Pritzker also suggested tax relief for working families.
Further in the debate, property taxes were brought up, as they are responsible for more than 60% of the state’s education funding. When Bailey was asked how he would balance property tax relief against making sure states are fully funded, he used a familiar answer: zero-based budgeting.
Pritzker’s answer to the same question involves balancing the state’s budget. He said that would give the state a surplus and allow the state to increase state funding for schools by $1.3 billion and reduce local property taxes.
In a Facebook Live, Bailey previously said he would roll back everything Pritzker has done in his first term. Bailey said those rollbacks would not include the $15 minimum wage. He suggested that the rollbacks were referring to Pritzker’s tax hikes.
The topic of abortion was center stage Thursday night in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe V. Wade. Pritzker has made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign since then, saying under his leadership, Illinois will protect a woman’s right to choose abortion.
In Illinois, there are no restrictions on abortion before “fetal viability.” After fetal viability, abortions may be performed to protect the patient’s life or health.
When pressed on whether he would remove all restrictions on abortions for any reason throughout pregnancy, Pritzker said the law Illinois has in place is what should stay in place.
Bailey has been a fierce advocate for anti-abortion beliefs in Illinois. However, he previously said procedures that would save the life of a mother are not considered abortion.
Bailey effectively sidestepped the question of whether he would impose a statewide abortion ban.
“Illinois has the most permissive abortion laws in the nation. Nothing’s going to change when I’m governor. I couldn’t change them if I could [sic],” said Bailey.
One topic viewers were concerned about was the rising cost of college education in Illinois. Both candidates were asked how they can make higher education more affordable.
Bailey’s plan to make tuition more affordable at state schools included reducing administrative “bloat,” referencing University of Illinois’ President Timothy Killeen, who Bailey claims makes over a million dollars per year.
According to the University of Illinois’ open payroll disclosure, Killeen took home $600,000 in 2020.
He did not provide specifics for reducing the so-called bloat.
“Our children are leaving the state, they’re not able to attend here, our tuition is entirely too high, and guess what, news flash, under the last four years of JB Pritzker, it’s gotten worse,” Bailey said, stressing Republicans should be the ones to ”deal with these issues.”
When asked how he can make state colleges more affordable, Pritzker said he made higher education more affordable by raising investments.
“In fact, I’ve increased MAP grants, those are our state scholarships, by 50%. That’s $200 million. That means that anyone who is eligible that applies for a MAP grant gets one. That’s never happened in the history of our state. As a result, we have the highest freshmen enrollment across the state in six years, and here at ISU, it’s the highest in 35 years,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker did not directly address whether he would consider a free community college program statewide if re-elected.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in significant drops in enrollment, academic performance, and potential declines in graduation rates according to a recent school report card released by the Illinois State Board of Education.
Each candidate was asked how they would make up for the lost learning students experienced during the pandemic. Pritzker said the schools are doing well.
“US News and World Report gave Illinois the ranking of number 1 among all the most populous states in the country for pre-K to 12 education, and I’m proud of the investments we’ve made,” said Pritzker. He did not offer a look into the future.
Bailey, on the other hand, said that the schools should never have shut down in the first place. He said he would essentially re-do the school system to prevent a shutdown from happening again.
“I’ll fire the entire state Board of Education,” said Bailey to cheers from the audience. “I’ll make sure that we have local control, and I’ll make sure that parents’ voices are heard.”
Following the July 4th shooting in Highland Park, which left seven people dead and 48 others injured, gun control has stayed relevant in the minds of voters. The latest Emerson poll found that 54% of Illinoisans support a statewide ban on assault-style weapons.
Pritzker previously responded to the event in a press conference hours after the shooting happened.
“If you’re angry today, I’m here to tell you to be angry. I’m furious, I’m furious that yet more innocent lives were taken by gun violence, I’m furious that their loved ones are forever broken by what took place today. I’m furious that children and their families have been traumatized. I’m furious that this is happening in families all across Illinois and America. I’m furious because it does not have to be this way,” Pritzker said.
However, Pritzker was challenged on the topic when moderators reminded him that Democrats have control of the legislature in Springfield and have failed to implement statewide legislation preventing assault-style weapon ownership.
When asked about how he specifically plans to do this, Pritzker sidestepped a direct answer by deferring to the state legislation.
“There are working groups that are working through this in the General Assembly–remember, the General Assembly is a co-equal branch of government,” said Pritzker. “They’ve got to do their work in order for us to actually have legislation.”
Bailey, on the other hand, has voted against gun control measures in the past. When asked whether he would go against the majority’s wishes to ban assault-style weapons in the state, Bailey did not give a firm answer.
One gun control bill passed during Pritzker’s time in office was the controversial FOID fingerprinting law, which requires applicants of the Firearm Owner Identification (FOID) card to submit their fingerprints. The fingerprints would help Illinois State Police more easily verify the identity of FOID applicants and firearm purchasers, as well as increase the frequency of background checks.
The law also lets responsible gun owners see their FOID and Concealed Carry applications expedited and automatically renewed going forward.
However, the current database for FOID applications is backed up, which left many law-abiding gun owners in limbo. To balance keeping people safe and not inconveniencing people who own guns, Pritzker said his priority is keeping people safe.
“I don’t think it’s too much of an inconvenience for a lawful gun owner, or somebody who is purchasing a gun, to go through a universal background check,” said Pritzker. “If we don’t do that, we’re going to end up with more illegal guns on the street.”
Bailey responded to the same question, blaming the SAFE-T Act.
“We repeal the SAFE-T Act and we allow law enforcement to do their jobs,” suggested Bailey. “We make sure people understand the laws that are on the books and that they are actually enforced.”
Bailey went on to criticize the FOID card system. It is unclear whether he intended the FOID card to be in the “laws on the books” that he intends people to follow.
Bailey is the owner of a school called Full Armor Christian Academy. The school has a sign on its doors warning people that staff members are heavily armed and any attempt to harm children will be met with deadly force.
This has led some to believe Bailey wants to arm all teachers in the state. When asked about the idea, Bailey responded by saying that his school is “not political” and that he would not involve them in the campaign.
Bailey then went on to change the subject.
“While we have time, I want to commit to you that, when I get elected as governor, that I’m going to serve all four years of my term. I promise you I will not be running for another elected office,” Sen. Bailey said, regarding rumors of Pritzker running for president in 2024. “I’ve signed a people’s pledge promising that I’ll do that, and Governor Pritzker, I want to ask you if you’re interested in signing that same pledge.”
Bailey pulled out a piece of paper from his suit jacket amid cheers from the audience.
“Well? Do you have a response?”
Moderators took the moment to remind the audience to hold their applause, and to remind Sen. Bailey that “we’re asking the questions here.”
However, they took Bailey’s question and ran with it, and asked Pritzker to commit to carrying out a full term in office if reelected.
“I intend to serve four years more as governor, and get reelected, and I intend to support the president who is running for reelection,” stated Pritzker.
Illinois is facing a pension shortfall north of $140 billion, and overall pension debt is more than 200% higher than annual revenue.
Pritzker and Bailey were both given half a minute to give their specific plan to address the state’s pension crisis.
“I’ve reduced the net pension liability because we’ve put more money into the pension systems than ever before, because we had surpluses, because we balanced the budget,” said Pritzker. “I’m pleased to say we’ve made real progress on our pensions.”
“I’ve been sitting with pensioners across the state, trying to find out what we can do, putting new hires on 401K plans, what we can do,” said Bailey. “Once we have a zero-based budget–I believe there’s $10-15 billion dollars of waste–we can use that and begin to make our state healthy again.”
The election for Illinois Governor will take place on Nov. 8. Voters must register to vote by Oct. 11, by mail, and Oct. 23, online. To register to vote, please visit the Illinois Online Voter Registration website.