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ANALYSIS: After debate, more clarity needed on candidates’ non-answers

Capitol News Illinois
State Sen. Darren Bailey and Gov. JB Pritzker

Pritzker, Bailey refuse to get specific in some important areas

Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey generally stuck to their talking points Thursday at their first debate on the same stage.

The questions and answers were similar to those posed during a forum organized by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors, on which I served as a questioner and we covered in-depth last week.

During Thursday night’s debate, organized by Nexstar Media Group and AARP and hosted at Illinois State University in Normal, I found some of the most interesting answers were the ones where specifics were lacking.

For the governor, that was when he wouldn’t say what changes he’d make to the Pretrial Fairness Act provision of the SAFE-T Act criminal justice reform that will end cash bail on Jan. 1.

It’s one of the only aspects of the wide-ranging law that has not yet been amended nearly two years after its initial passage, but changes are likely coming.

An Illinois Supreme Court task force charged with assisting in implementing the law has pointed to needed clarifications, and even the law’s most ardent supporters have noted negotiations on follow-up legislation continue.

The crux of the matter is that various sections of the bill, taken together, are seen by prosecutors as too limiting for judges who consider whether an individual should be denied pretrial release. Pritzker said his intent is to pass language that ensures and clarifies that no individuals are “non-detainable.”

At the debate he was asked for specifics.

“I think there are clarifications that can be made in the law to make sure that everyone understands what this law is,” he said.

He repeated a talking point that violent criminals should not be released from pretrial detention simply because they can afford bail, while mothers who shoplift diapers and formula shouldn’t be detained simply because they can’t.

It was a similar response to a question I asked in last week’s forum about whether the public deserved broader, more public discussion of changes prior to Election Day. Lawmakers are not scheduled to return to the Capitol until one week after the election.

After the debate, Pritzker said a bill filed by Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, could serve as a framework for follow-up legislation.

That bill, among other things, would clarify that the end of cash bail applies to individuals arrested after Jan. 1, would make it so previous missed court hearings are evidence that a person is a willful flight risk, would clarify that officers will always have authority to detain an individual deemed a safety threat, and would remove language stating officers should apply a “presumption in favor of pretrial release” while making arrests.

But the bill also had some provisions which bail reform advocates worried would increase pretrial detention, and Pritzker didn’t specify which portions of the 71-page bill he would support.

Bailey, meanwhile, argued that the law should be fully repealed, and any negotiations on changes should be had in the open and prior to Election Day.

But Bailey, a state senator and farmer from downstate Xenia, had his share of non-answers as well.

Or at least he answered “zero-based budgeting” to a number of questions while declining to go into greater detail as to how he would cut the state’s budget.

Bailey didn’t give a specific definition for “zero-based budgeting.” In general, he’s suggested it means agency heads would have to sit down each year and justify every dollar spent, rather than operating on the baseline expenses that agencies carry year after year.

“Once we do a zero-based budget, I believe there's $10 to $15 billion in that budget of waste. And we can take that and begin to get our state healthy again,” Bailey said when asked about pension debt.

There’s a lot to unpack there.

For starters, cutting that much money from the state budget would be the equivalent of eliminating the Department of Corrections 10 times, or eliminating the state’s general revenue fund contribution to K-12 and college-level education entirely.

To be clear, those are not things Bailey has proposed cutting. He hasn’t said what he’d cut.

The point is, he’d have to cut a lot to reach that level of savings.

The state’s total general revenue fund operating budget is $46 billion for the current year. That means Bailey believes 22-33 percent of the state’s general revenue fund spending is waste.

It’s an even more eye-popping figure when you factor in that the state’s pension payment this year is $9.9 billion. Since Bailey criticized Pritzker for “short-changing” pensions – the governor hasn’t shorted the pension payments required by law, although accountants generally believe pension payments should be higher than they are under law – we can assume he’d want to maintain at least the statutory minimum contribution.

Which would mean he believes 28 percent to 42 percent of non-pension state spending is “waste.”

If that were the case, one would think Bailey would have a long list of wasteful spending he’d plan to cut. But he didn’t identify any Thursday.

Instead, he assured moderators, his people will identify cuts through zero-based budgeting, which will also “solve the problem” of making Illinois more business friendly and will allow the state to address high property taxes.

The two candidates will meet again on Oct. 18 for another debate in Chicago. Maybe they’ll get more specific.

Jerry Nowicki is the bureau Chief of Capitol News Illinois, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Jerry Nowicki is bureau chief of Capitol News Illinois and has been with the organization since its inception in 2019.