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Article updated: 2/4/2014 2:26 PM

Taxes, not misconduct claims, top GOP governor debate in Naperville

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In the first public debate among Republican candidates for governor since allegations of misconduct were made against state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, all four hopefuls let that topic lie.

They debated instead about taxes, jobs and business issues to roughly 250 members of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association and the Valley Industrial Association gathered this morning in Naperville.

None of the candidates touched on the veritable elephant in the room -- allegations of unspecified misconduct by a Rutherford staffer that arose four days ago when Rutherford held a news conference to accuse opponent Bruce Rauner of engineering the claims. Rauner, a Winnetka businessman, denies he was involved.

Both Rutherford, of Chenoa, and Rauner exited quickly after the debate without commenting, and the two other candidates, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington and state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale also left the issue alone.

During the debate, Rutherford said he would work toward building consensus in state government because the governor isn't "king of the forest."

"The skill set that I will bring as your governor will be that of a citizen legislator," Rutherford said. "I've had the opportunity to work in Springfield and I'm very proud of that, to work in Springfield with the associations that are represented here as well as others that are pro-business, and understand that navigating that environment can be complicated."

Tax issues kicked off the 90-minute debate, with candidates disagreeing over whether the state's sales tax should be broadened to also include services. The theory proposed by moderator Mike Flannery of FOX News Chicago was that broadening the sales tax, so it would apply to services such as haircuts or the labor in an oil change, would allow the tax rate to be lowered. Now, Illinois sales taxes are only applied to purchase of goods, not services.

Rutherford was the only candidate to oppose such a change in the state's sales tax.

"We don't need to broaden any more taxes," Rutherford said. "When government starts to be able to tax something, they're going to look for the next thing to do after that. I do not support taxing services in Illinois."

Brady came out strongly in favor of expanding the tax base and decreasing the rate. Coupled with the creation of a mechanism to collect sales taxes on online purchases residents make from out-of-state businesses, Brady said the change could decrease unfair advantages for businesses outside Illinois.

"There's no question we need to broaden the base and lower the rate. People make decisions to leave this state because of the rate," Brady said.

Rauner and Dillard both said they would consider applying sales tax to services as part of a complete tax overhaul.

The debate also covered the minimum wage, workers' compensation reform, special tax breaks for big businesses and regulations for the nuclear power and natural gas extraction industries.

On workers' compensation, all candidates said reforms would improve the business climate. Rutherford, Brady and Dillard said employees should be required to prove the cause of their injury was related to their job in order to be eligible. Rauner did not provide a specific reform idea, but said high workers' compensation costs are a "massive problem," one Illinois businesses should battle by electing a Republican who will stick to pro-business principles.

The four will square off in the March 18 primary to see who will move on to the November general election and face the winner of the Democratic race, either Gov. Pat Quinn or community organizer Tio Hardiman of Hillside.

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