A member of the Illini Democrats opened the candidates forum Monday night, with a line sure to please the party faithful:
“Thank you all for coming out tonight, the date that marks one year out from the day that we take the state back from Bruce Rauner.”
The crowd at the U of I’s Gregory Hall auditorium erupted into cheers and applause. Whichever candidates those in attendance supported, they all hoped their choice would defeat Governor Rauner next November.
Of the seven Democrats running for governor, four of them were on hand Monday night to talk about why they should be their party’s nominee to challenge Rauner.
When moderator Tom Kacich of the News-Gazette raised the issue of rising college tuition, three of the four candidates sharing the table at the forum said the answer was to make state college and university tuition free.
That’s what candidate Tio Hardiman called for. And to pay for that free tuition, Hardiman says he wants to move from a flat state income tax to a graduated one, and also put a tax on financial transactions, like the sale of stocks and commodities. Hardiman, whose running mate, former Champaign County NAACP president Patricia Avery was also present, estimates those two changes could bring in five billion dollars a year in additional state revenue.
“So, under a Hardiman and Avery administration of four years, that’s 20 billion dollars of new revenue here for the state of Illinois,” said Hardiman. “So we plan to use some of those funds to make college tuition free, for college students … and I’m not just saying this because I’m running for governor, this is what we believe in — make college tuition free up until the bachelor degree level.”
Hardiman was alone among the candidates in supporting a tax on financial transactions, a proposal currently languishing in the Illinois House. But State Senator Daniel Biss said that like Hardiman, he also supported free tuition at state universities and community colleges. The suburban Chicago lawmaker said free college is as sensible as free public schools.
“We made a decision a hundred years ago as a society, that you need an elementary and secondary education to be competitive,” said Biss. “And so we made free access to universal public, elementary and secondary education. Our economy has changed. It’s time for our public services to change with it. And it’s time for free college.”
Bob Daiber, the lone downstate candidate, wouldn’t go that far. He called for raising state funding for state colleges and universities, but only back to 2012 levels. Daiber also said state universities need to be at the front of the line when lawmakers are working out the state budget … because they’re both an educational service and an economic engine.
“And it’s got to be a priority because Higher Ed is an economic stimulus for this state in every university town,” said Daiber, who serves as the regional superintendent of education in Madison County. “Students bring revenue to the state as we attract them. And they also provide revenue when they’re graduates.”
But moderator Tom Kacich had a follow-up question: if higher education should be a top priority for state funding, do other state programs have to make do with less? Former University of Illinois Board President Chris Kennedy rejected the premise. Putting down his unreliable wireless microphone, Kennedy got up from the candidates’ table and told the crowd that a graduated income tax would not only pay for free state college tuition, but could raise money to help all state programs.
”You can’t say to the state of Illinois, the people of Illinois, that you have a choice between affordable higher education and all other services,” Kennedy said. “That’s not true. What you have a choice between is a state with a great future that’s funded by a progressive, graduated income tax, or a state that stalls out.”
The candidates also answered questions about promoting job growth, helping downstate communities, what to do about state pensions and gun violence. The Illini Democrats said it was the only gubernatorial candidates forum organized by students this campaign season. The group’s communications director, Max Weiss, estimated attendance at up to 200, with a few more following the event live on Facebook.