Strange doings in Illinois Newswatch...on politics today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

October 04, 1990|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

CHICAGO -- Democratic gubernatorial candidate Neil Hartigan, who has been doing a fair imitation of Ronald Reagan and George Bush in their no-new-taxes campaign promises of 1984 and 1988, has decided to put just about all his eggs in that basket.

Trailing Republican Jim Edgar, the Illinois secretary of state, going into the summer, Hartigan first unleashed a series of television ads that single-mindedly hammered at Edgar as a politician who would tax Illinoisans as a first resort to meet the state's educational problems.

Now, he has announced that he will allow to lapse a $363 million income-tax surcharge for public education, due to expire next June, that Edgar says must be made permanent. Hartigan says he will provide localities the same amount by cutting government waste, a promise that Edgar calls "blue smoke and mirrors."

Thus, just as in the 1984 presidential campaign between Walter Mondale and Reagan, the race for governor of Illinois is offering the voters a choice between a politically risky candor on taxes and what they want to hear. But this time it's the Republican doing an imitation of Walter Mondale and the Democrat playing Reagan.

If anything, Hartigan, the state attorney general, is now outdoing both Reagan and Bush in the relentlessness of his assault on Edgar on the tax issue. In a new series of 10-second television ads, the Hartigan campaign seeks to play on voter revulsion to any new taxes to the exclusion of other issues.

Hartigan says he needs to cut the state budget only 1 percent to achieve the necessary economies, and he cites as his no-new-taxes model not Reagan or Bush, but Virginia's Democratic governor, Doug Wilder, who has proposed an even sharper budget cut in his state.

Edgar says what is really needed is property tax relief. He argues that dropping the income-tax surcharge -- pushed through for two years by lame-duck Republican Gov. James Thompson -- will guarantee even higher property taxes as localities seek money to make up for the state aid shortfall he says is sure to come under Hartigan.

The tax issue is a relatively complex one, but Hartigan's quickie ads paint it in the simplest terms, and the polls suggest the ads have worked. From a 10 percent deficit in the Chicago Tribune poll last January, Hartigan climbed to within 3 percent of Edgar in a Tribune survey published last month.

One 10-second Hartigan ad says: "Jim Edgar thinks the best way to lower your property taxes is to raise income taxes . . . Right . . . It's time for a change." And another: "Jim Edgar's first response? Raise taxes. Neil Hartigan's? Make government do more with what it already has." And still another: "Jim Edgar is the only candidate for governor who supports the largest permanent income-tax increase in Illinois history. It's time for a change."

While Hartigan is counting on general voter hostility to taxes, Edgar is relying on voters concluding that Hartigan, a longtime Democratic machine cog, can't really find the needed education money in state government waste and duplication, and is just another old politician of empty promises.

In telling Illinoisans he is not going to kid them on taxes, Edgar is well aware that Thompson twice as a candidate pledged no taxes and then raised them. He can't very well criticize the Republican he hopes to succeed, but he hopes that the contrast will be clear and that Thompson's record will cause skepticism about Hartigan's no-taxes promise.

Carter Hendren, Edgar's campaign manager, says of Hartigan's pitch: "He believes he's got a short, concise message that there's waste in government. Do people believe it? Yes. But does he have the credibility to be believable? No."

In an attempt to blunt Hartigan's charge, the Edgar campaig recently ran a television ad noting that Hartigan as a director of a failed Illinois savings and loan had been charged with mismanagement. What the ad didn't say was that case occurred 22 years ago and the charges against him were dropped. The ad gave Edgar a black eye in the Illinois media for trying unfairly to tie Hartigan to the current S&L scandal.

However, as Hartigan's single-minded quickie ads demonstrate, taxes are the issue in this race -- and the only issue, if his campaign has its way. But Hendren insists that, in the end, Hartigan's "character" in making promises on education funding he can't keep will turn voters to Edgar.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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