PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday April 1st, 2014, 7:13pm

Race For Illinois Treasurer Heats Up

The General Election is not for another seven months, but the nominees for Illinois treasurer are wasting no time in taking jabs at each other. Progress Illinois takes a look at the race for treasurer that pits State Sen. Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) against State Rep. Tom Cross (R-Oswego). 

The General Election is not for another seven months, but the nominees for Illinois treasurer are wasting no time in taking jabs at each other.

State Rep. Tom Cross (R-Oswego), the former Illinois House minority leader, and State Sen. Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) are duking it out to succeed outgoing incumbent State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who ran unsuccessfully for the 2014 Republican gubernatorial nomination.

After Gov. Pat Quinn's budget address last week, Cross slammed both Frerichs and the governor for supporting the 2011 temporary income tax hike, which is set to start phasing out in January unless state lawmakers take action.

"The simple fact is under Governor Pat Quinn and Senator Mike Frerichs, Illinois is going from bad to worse," Cross wrote in a statement. "Three years after the 67 percent income tax increase supported by Quinn/Frerichs, there is less funding for education, less funding for critical safety-net programs, over $7 billion in unpaid bills and fewer jobs. Despite the tax increase being a complete failure, the Quinn/Frerichs team has doubled down and is seeking to make it permanent. In the process, they have broken their word to Illinois taxpayers as they previously pledged the tax increase would be temporary."

Cross went on to reiterate his desire to use the treasurer's office, if elected, to enforce the state constitutional requirement of a balanced budget. If elected as Illinois' chief investment officer, Cross said he would be willing to go to court to enforce that provision. 

Frerichs' campaign fired back swiftly, blasting Cross for being a "hypocrite" who "backed some of most costly budget gimmicks in Springfield history."

“Tom Cross saying he now opposes Springfield budget gimmicks is like A-Rod saying he now opposes performance enhancing drugs," wrote Frerichs' Campaign Manager Zach Koutsky. "Cross’ sudden conversion is a little hard to swallow given he has spent his twenty-year Springfield career creating and voting for almost every budget gimmick passed under Governors Edgar, Ryan and Blagojevich."

In the Republican primary for state treasurer, Cross, who has served as a state representative since 1993 and is a former Kane County prosecutor, beat DuPage County Auditor Bob Grogan. Cross was the House Republican Leader from 2003 until August 2013, when he stepped down from his leadership position to pursue his bid for state treasurer. Frerichs, a state senator since 2007 and a former Champaign County Auditor, ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination. Frerichs is also a Certified Public Finance Officer.

With sitting Republican Treasurer Rutherford set to vacate his post, the Illinois Republican Party is trying to maintain control of the state treasurer's office, which is tasked with managing billions of taxpayer dollars and overseeing various financial programs. State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who is up against Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon in November, and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk are the only other Republicans who currently hold a statewide office in Illinois.

"Naturally, (the Republicans) not only want to hold on to what they have now, but try to expand, and it's critical that they hang on to this seat," said John Jackson, visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "I'm sure they would like to hang on to the comptroller's seat as well, and both are shaping up to be very competitive races." 

Frerichs' campaign put out a statement last week, citing a number of proposals Cross voted for that have "helped put Illinois on the brink of bankruptcy."

For example, Cross backed the so-called "pension ramp" legislation signed into law by former Gov. Jim Edgar in 1994 that contributed in part to the state's current pension crisis. Frerichs' campaign also took aim at Cross for supporting "bloated budgets and tax increases" during Rod Blagojevich's time as governor. The former House minority leader also came under fire for voting for Blagojevich's $10 billion pension bonding legislation, which was approved in 2003, among other controversial measures.

"(Cross) says no more gimmicks, no more shifting money around," Koutsky told Progress Illinois. "Well what about all these budgets that you voted for that, looking at it, did exactly that?"

Cross' campaign did not return Progress Illinois' interview request for this story.

Jackson called the recent back and forth from the two campaigns pretty standard and "particularly cogent because both candidates have a legislative record they have to defend."

"And that's a bit unusual for [candidates seeking to be] state constitutional officers to both have records in the General Assembly and both have votes they've taken that are now coming under scrutiny," he added.

"Representative Cross, having been the leader for so long, has, I think, some vulnerability on the basis of having led the Republican caucus," Jackson continued. "On the other hand, the senator has generally not been in [office] as long and has not been in a leadership position, but is easily tied to both Pat Quinn and to Blagojevich. So either side has some talking points and some advantages and disadvantages. I'd say on the first round, you got about a draw. Not a clear knock out by either side."

The Illinois Republican Party has also been at work digging into Frerichs' record, specifically on tax issues.

In a statement, the Illinois GOP took aim at Frerichs over his efforts "to force a progressive income tax on Illinois families."

"In the past seven years, Frerichs voted to pass the largest tax hike in Illinois history, and worked repeatedly to pass a progressive tax hike that would raise the burden even higher on 85 percent of Illinois taxpayers," the statement reads.

As a state senator, Frerichs has introduced various proposed amendments for a graduate income tax structure in which high-earners are taxed at a higher rate.

"What I've been trying to do is to allow the people of the state of Illinois to have a vote on the state constitution," Frerichs told Progress Illinois. "The Republican Party is hypocritical here. They've said we need to let the public decide, but [on] this issue they oppose, they don't trust the public. I trust the people of Illinois to give them that responsibility."

Frerichs expects the Illinois Republican Party to fight him "every inch of the way," adding that the state GOP has been "out of the gate early" with attacks.

"When you have a candidate who doesn't have an understanding of the office and doesn't articulate a plan for how you're going to effectively use the office to help the people of the state of Illinois, then you're left with nothing but attacks," the senator noted.

If elected, Frerichs says he would revive financial literacy programs for seniors, teens, small business owners and others. "That's an important role of the treasurer's office," the senator said. "I think our current Republican incumbent has neglected that role."

Additionally, the state senator wants to expand linked deposit programs to help small businesses and entrepreneurs get low-rate interest loans. He would also push to reduce fees for families who participate in the Bright Start and Bright Directions college savings programs, among other priorities. The state currently has a contract with a company for the college savings programs. Frerichs would put that contract back out for bid and fight for lower fees if elected.

As previously mentioned, Cross has repeatedly said enforcing the constitutional provision for a balanced budget would be one of his top issues if he is the next treasurer.

"He can't do that," Jackson argued, adding that the "power of the budget is in the House and Senate, not in the treasurer's office. It's just an administerial duty."

Frerichs pointed out that Cross has "voted for several out of balance budgets over his career."

"He also said he wants to prosecute people," the Democratic lawmaker said. "I think perhaps he's thinking about his first choice — attorney general. That's the office he wanted to run for. He's still talking as if he's running for attorney general ... The treasurer's job is not to prosecute people as Tom Cross is claiming, but it's to invest the state's resources."

"My opponent has demonstrated a misunderstanding of the responsibilities and duties of the office, " Frerichs added. "So your priorities can be good, but if you don't know what you're actually doing in that office, you're not going to be very effective."

Meanwhile, Cross has also vowed to use the treasurer's office to crackdown on fraud and corruption, which Jackson called "somewhat more realistic."

"I think both the treasurer's office and the comptroller's office have some responsibilities there to make sure that the bills that are being paid and the checks that are being written are legitimate, and I think both can claim some jurisdiction there," he explained. "I think that is playing off the fact that Illinois people are generally very concerned about fraud and corruption."

Jackson pointed to a new poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, which found that 89 percent of Illinoisans feel corruption is somewhat common in the state, while 53 percent believe it is very common. The statewide telephone poll of 1,001 registered Illinois voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

"Anybody that's in Illinois government has an obligation to uphold the highest ethical standards. You have [a] multitude of examples as to why that is sorely needed, and, frankly, the treasurer's office is a great example of that," Koutsky added. "The allegations against Treasurer Rutherford, while still certainly working their way through it, do highlight the fact that whoever's going to be in this office next has some work to do to regain the trust of the people."

Koutsky is referring to the allegations made by a former state treasurer's office employee that Rutherford sexually harassed him on multiple occasions. The former worker, who has filed a federal lawsuit against Rutherford, has also said he was required to take part in campaign work for the treasurer while on the clock as a state employee. Rutherford has vehemently denied the accusations.

Frerichs said his first order of business, if elected, would be to conduct an independent audit of the treasurer's office to help clean it up and bring in a new level of transparency.

Check back with Progress Illinois for our look at the comptroller's race.

Images: AP/Seth Perlman 

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