By JOHN O'CONNOR | AP Political Writer
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his Republican challenger Darren Bailey used an hourlong debate Thursday finding different ways to call each other “liar” with Election Day fewer than five weeks away.
The Democratic incumbent and the southern Illinois state senator disagreed over the other's handling of or position on the state budget, regulating assault-style weapons, abortion and crime — particularly the justice system overhaul Pritzker signed last year known as the SAFE-T Act.
To Pritzker, the upstart Republican and relative legislative newcomer is a “hypocrite” on the issues for which he attacks the governor.
According to Bailey, Pritzker's handling of crime, property taxes and education is “crushing” the state, “all because J.B. Pritzker is hell-bent on becoming the most radical leftist governor in America. ... This man is dangerous.”
Pritzker, elected in 2018 amid the aftermath of a budget stalemate that left the state billions of dollars in debt, boasted before an audience at Illinois State University in Normal of the way he paid down debt and balanced the budget for four years. Bailey claimed that Pritzker did so with federal relief money for the COVID-19 pandemic and by not paying the full amount necessary to fund employee pension systems.
Bailey contended he would cut taxes with a “reprioritization of spending” and zero-based budgeting. Pritzker said his management of the budget has proven successful and with billions of debt paid down, his continued leadership could mean lower taxes in the future.
Pritzker said he would not repeat his 2020 attempt to change the constitutionally required flat income tax to force wealthier residents to pay more, contending that his management of finances has produced budget surpluses the last two years.
Pritzker is heavily favored in the race, and has outraised Bailey dramatically. The 57-year-old billionaire equity investor and philanthropist had $60 million in the bank on June 30 and has contributed $20 million of his own money since. Bailey had just under $2 million on hand last summer and raised $360,000 since.
Noting his fundraising for Democrats nationally and a trip last spring to New Hampshire, Bailey dramatically pulled from his vest pocket a paper he said is a pledge he has signed to serve a full four-year term and not duck out to run for president. Pritzker ignored Bailey’s invitation to join in signing, but said he planned to finish a second term and supports the re-election of President Joe Biden.
Bailey, 56, a farmer from the southern Illinois town of Xenia, 96 miles (154 kilometers) east of St. Louis, has attacked Pritzker over crime in the state. Like many Republicans seeking election this fall, he has also taken aim at the Pritzker-approved SAFE-T Act, a criminal justice system overhaul approved in early 2021 that attempts to thwart excessive force by police, sets new standards for policing — including expanding the use of body cameras — and ends the use of cash bail for criminal suspects.
That means a “revolving door” for jails statewide, Bailey said while Pritzker interjected, “Lies. More lies. He's not telling the truth.”
“The criminal justice system that Darren Bailey and Republicans are standing up for is one that allows murderers and rapists and domestic abusers to buy their way out of jail,” Pritzker said. Among other critics, an Illinois Supreme Court panel has recommended bail reform, noting the economic damage done to someone who can't afford to pay.
Pritzker also called Thursday for a federal ban on assault-style weapons like the type used in the July 4th mass shooting in Highland Park, saying “No one should have that kind of firepower.” However, he defended not having a statewide assault-style weapons ban in place because the General Assembly has set up a task force to study the issue. Pritzker's defense came after he criticized Bailey for suggesting the study of another issue — free community colleges — with other state leaders.
After the the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade opinion legalizing abortion, Pritzker promised legislative action to strengthen abortion access in Illinois, which already allows virtually unfettered access to abortion up to the point of fetal viability, with abortion allowed after viability when the mother's health or life is in jeopardy.
Thursday, Pritzker said he didn't support changes to allow abortion beyond viability — about 24 to 26 weeks.
“The law that we have in place now ... is what we should keep in place,” Pritzker said.
The Democrat has promoted Bailey's opposition to abortion rights in numerous political ads, but Bailey reiterated Thursday he wouldn't press the issue because it's unlikely to win a Democratic Legislature's approval.
“My focus is going to be crime, taxes and education,” Bailey said. “ ... J.B. Pritzker wants to fear monger and put all of this nonsense out there (about abortion) that can’t be changed anyway. And it needs to stop. We need to focus on uniting this state.”
Follow Political Writer John O’Connor on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apoconnor.
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