During a Feb. 29 candidates forum in Broadview — hosted by the Forest Park civic group Vox 60130 and co-sponsored by Wednesday Journal, the Forest Park Review and the Village Free Press of Maywood — state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (7th) and his opponent, former Forest Park commissioner Chris Harris, outlined two distinct approaches to tackling Springfield’s current budget impasse.
The state has been without a budget for more than eight months, a reality that has fallen hardest on the state’s poorest residents and the social safety net — in the form of child-care subsidies, college tuition assistance, social services and other resources — designed to provide a floor of relief. The budget impasse has also translated into credit downgrades for the state itself and the many public institutions like colleges and universities that are heavily dependent on state aid.
In an often tense, heated exchange between the two men, each laid the state’s fiscal mess at the feet of leadership, with Welch speaking sharply against Gov. Bruce Rauner and Harris largely condemning House Speaker Michael Madigan.
“We need a budget. Our state needs and deserves a budget. It’s irresponsible what the governor is doing. The governor is hijacking our state and holding middle-class families hostage with his ‘turnaround’ agenda,” said Welch, referencing the series of business-friendly reforms — such as weakening labor unions, freezing property taxes, instituting term limits and redrawing legislative districts — that Rauner has tied to budget negotiations.
Welch added that if the budget negotiations were in the hands of the General Assembly’s rank-and-file members, the state might have reached a solution by now. He also couched his argument for re-election in terms of continuity, noting that by winning another term, he’d be up for chairmanships on key committees.
Harris presented himself largely as a challenge to the decades-long rule of House Speaker Madigan, whom Harris has faulted for his heavy-handed control of the legislature and his role in many of the state’s structural problems, such as the ongoing pension crisis.
“I’m not saying, ‘Yes sir, Mr. Speaker.’ Should you agree with the speaker on everything? Shouldn’t you have your own thoughts? I’m going down there to represent the 7th District, not Michael Madigan,” said Harris. “I’m going down there to … think about what’s best for our community, not what [Madigan] says every time.”
“Mike Madigan didn’t help me with my law degree and Mike Madigan didn’t help me get elected in 2012,” countered Welch. “I vote for what I believe in.”
Each candidate offered different approaches to rectifying the state’s fiscal crisis. Harris said that, if elected, he would work to propose a forensic audit, which is often used to determine fraud and other forms of financial abuse and waste. He also noted that he would look to make necessary budget cuts before he’d consider raising taxes.
“Raising taxes is lazy government,” he said. “Before you raise taxes, you should exhaust all options.”
Welch, who insisted that the state should be seeking opportunities to raise revenue instead of enacting harsh austerity measures, advocated for a surcharge tax on millionaires and a progressive tax structure — as opposed to the flat income tax that the state currently maintains.
During a heated exchange about campaign literature, Harris condemned 15 mailers that he said have been sent out by Welch’s campaign so far that have attributed statements made by Rauner to him. Harris said the attacks could be traced to Madigan’s Democratic machine and its thousands of dollars in financial support to Welch.
“[The quotes on those mailers are] nothing I ever said,” Harris stated.
Welch said he based the Rauner-related mailers on statements Harris made on his Facebook page before running for state representative — such as a quote about taxes being a last resort. He also condemned a Rauner-related conservative super PAC’s decision to support Harris by, for instance, circulating newspapers attacking his candidacy and promoting Harris’.
“All of our mailers have citations and you can go to Mr. Harris’ Facebook page before he announced he was running for state representative, where he was talking like Chris Harris and not candidate Harris. He was probably telling the truth more so than than he is now,” Welch said. “That is, he wants to make sure cuts are maintained. I don’t support making more cuts.”
Harris, who noted that, by law, he hasn’t been able to directly contact the PAC, argued that his research suggests that the PAC’s founder, Dan Proft, may be more motivated by a vendetta against Welch than active support of Harris’ candidacy.