Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and Republican businessman Bruce Rauner held little back in their first meeting of the 2014 campaign, with Rauner telling an influential teachers union that Quinn has broken his promises on issues from school funding to taxes, and the governor calling his opponent "the biggest threat to public education" in Illinois.
The swipes came during a sometimes-rowdy meeting of the Illinois Education Association in Chicago -- a crowd of more than 1,000 that clearly favored Quinn but was not unanimous in its support.
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Both candidates went into Friday's event with some baggage. The union is suing Quinn and other lawmakers over legislation approved last year to cut public-employee pensions. And the group was among several unions that helped fund TV ads during the GOP primary attacking Rauner. The Winnetka venture capitalist became a target by repeatedly railing against "government union bosses" and calling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- who stripped public workers of most bargaining powers after his 2010 election -- one of his role models.
Rauner sought Friday to reassure the crowd of his commitment to teachers and education, saying "eliminating collective bargaining is not part of my agenda" and pledging that he would make education funding a top priority.
Rauner, who's making his first bid for public office, also noted that he and his wife have given millions of their personal fortune to provide merit pay for teachers and scholarships for poor children. And he criticized Quinn for cutting funding to schools by some $600 million -- cuts that led to teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.
"Pat Quinn has broken his promises on pensions, on taxes, on education funding repeatedly," Rauner said. "That's a fact. You guys know it. We can all look it up."
Quinn says the cuts were due to huge increases in the state's annual pension payments, a problem he believes was resolved when the Legislature approved last year's pension overhaul.
The Chicago Democrat, who's seeking his second full term, wants to increase education funding by $344 million in the next fiscal year and by $6 billion over five years. Those increases are dependent on legislators approving Quinn's plan to make a temporary income tax hike passed in 2011 permanent -- an increase Rauner opposes but Quinn says is necessary.
"If we want excellent schools, we've got to pay for it," Quinn said.
Quinn also said he won't "charterize" Illinois -- a reference to Rauner's support for charter schools, where teachers are typically not represented by a union -- and said unlike Rauner, he "absolutely" doesn't support school vouchers.
"The biggest threat to public education in the state of Illinois is my opponent," Quinn said.
The two candidates also tangled over public-employee pensions. Quinn said he's the first governor to make the state's full payment to the funds, which have a $100 billion shortfall largely because lawmakers for years skipped or shorted their contributions. But he also signed the legislation last year that would cut benefits for most employees and retirees and raise the retirement age for some -- a move that drew legal action from the IEA and other unions who say it's unconstitutional.
Rauner says he would let current public workers keep the pension benefits they have earned so far. Going forward he wants to freeze those accounts and move employees to a 401(k)-style retirement system -- a plan he says is more fair and more like the retirement accounts most voters have. That idea was clearly unpopular, drawing some boos and hisses from the crowd.
The biggest applause of the event came after IEA President Cinda Klickna, who moderated the discussion, asked Rauner to whom he was referring when he criticized "union bosses." Rauner -- who told the crowd he wanted to work with them even if they didn't always agree -- smiled and replied "Ummmm, you," before naming some other leaders of the state's largest public-employee unions.
Klickna then told Rauner she is a "proud leader" of the union, drawing a huge and lengthy standing ovation.
"We know this is going to be an interesting campaign," Klickna said.