"It's over, Jimmy boy. It's over. Thompson can't hold your hand any more, or wipe your nose, or pat you on the head."
Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan, to the 1990 Illinois AFL-CIO convention.
Though more fitting for a schoolyard scuffle than a campaign for the state's highest office, the taunt and the tone with which Democratic gubernatorial candidate Neil F. Hartigan capped a rip-roaring stemwinder to some 1,000 union delegates last month aptly captured the negative atmosphere of his contest with Secy. of State Jim Edgar, the Republican gubernatorial nominee.
The demeaning reference to Edgar's relationship to the governor seemed particularly inappropriate coming from Hartigan, whose own political star began its climb some 20 years ago with more than a little help from the late Chicago mayor, Richard J. Daley.
In Hartigan's defense, the boorish outburst came at the end of an emotional tirade against Edgar and Gov. James R. Thompson; perhaps the heat of the moment simply swept Hartigan beyond the bounds of good taste. Or he could have decided that Edgar deserved an oratorical low blow for his TV blitz that dredged up Hartigan's ties in the late 1960s to the failed Apollo Savings and Loan Association.
Certainly, the GOP candidate's attack was indefensible; Hartigan was absolved of any wrong-doing long ago. Still, Illinois voters deserve better than an ongoing escalation of name-calling and personal attacks from the two men seeking to become the state's chief executive.
That the campaign has taken a turn for the negative is probably not surprising. Hartigan overcame an early deficit in the polls to pull into a virtual dead heat with Edgar largely through a late summer media campaign that painted the Republican as a tax raiser. Edgar's camp argues — with some justification — that the TV assault was another example of Hartigan unfairly distorting their candidate's position. Fairness aside, with Hartigan clearly scoring well on the tax issue, GOP strategists, seemed to be hoping the Apollo spot would shift the focus from taxes to questions about the Democrat's character.
But taxes — or more precisely the state's fiscal condition — ought to be the No. 1 issue in the gubernatorial campaign because state finances are certain to be the No. 1 problem for the next governor. "I don't think either candidate really knows how bad the state's financial condition is," observed Douglas L. Whitley, president of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois. "I don't think either one wants to know."
Whoever wins can expect bad news from both sides of the budget equation. As the national economy continues to sour, the revenue forecasts undergirding the current budget will prove far too optimistic; the resulting shortfall could reach $100 million or more. At the same time, a mountain of unpaid bills will be waiting for the new governor, thanks to this year's slowdown in paying Medicaid claims, state employs health benefits and senior citizen tax relief grants.
Addressing the budget challenge, both candidates have proposed programmatic restraint and procedural reforms. But while the plan Edgar unveiled in February focused on holding the line on future spending, Hartigan in mid-August promised to slash $573 million and 2,500 jobs from current state government levels. Although Edgar's approach seems more realistic to many who follow state financial practices, there's little doubt Hartigan's excoriation of waste and mismanagement has greater voter appeal. But is his solution credible?
The point is irrelevant, of course, if one dismisses the Hartigan program as merely the result of a conscious decision to say whatever it takes to get elected, as some skeptics have. Such cynicism aside, there are still good reasons to question whether the plan could work:
• If Hartigan's analysis is correct, the herculean effort to cut spending by legislative
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appropriations committees last spring still failed to uncover almost $400 million in budget bloat. Yet despite an appearance of specificity, Hartigan does not identify which duplicate programs would be axed, what agency budgets would be cut, whose jobs would be eliminated, or which tax breaks would be rescinded. Such details can't be known, he says, until performance audits are finished and his management advisors have reported.
At the same time, the Democrat has been assuring interest groups that their particular programs are not in jeopardy. Only overpaid, nonproductive patronage hacks, not direct care workers, would be fired, he told the AFL-CIO; likewise, Hartigan aides tried to soothe farmers and implement dealers by denying the sales tax exemption for farm machinery has been targeted as a loophole to be closed.
• Though painted in broad strokes, Hartigan's plan contains some provisions that taken at face value would seem to lead to improbable consequences. For example, he's pledged to cap at current levels future general revenue fund (GRF) transfers to other special funds. Does he really intend to foreclose growth in school aid or state Regional Transportation Authority grants for the local government share of income tax receipts, all of which are paid out of special funds fed by GRF transfers?
• If state spending has gotten out of hand in recent years, the Democratic-controlled legislature must share the blame. Though the governor has a wide array of vetoes, none of them permit him to add a single penny to the budget measures lawmakers send him.
Would a Gov. Hartigan be able to convince his legislative party mates to embrace his budget cuts, forsaking pet programs and local projects that have helped drive spending to record highs? Hartigan insists he's ready for that challenge, and he's fond of comparing himself to the veteran pitcher called upon for the seventh game of the World Series. "I've been warming up for years," he told one interviewer. "So I'll know what to do if I get a chance to be governor."
While appealing, the image is hardly conclusive. As St. Louis Cardinal fans are painfully aware, even great pitchers can come up short in a Series finale.
Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.
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