Six Republican candidates for Illinois governor offered six variations on the same basic promises to cut spending and fight government corruption in a debate Monday in which the most pointed criticism was saved for Democrats.
All of them said the key to solving Illinois' huge budget problem is to slash spending, although they were often vague on how that should be done. They promised to reduce Medicaid and pension costs or to cut spending increased under the previous governor but rarely cited specific programs that would be slashed.
Some candidates occasionally questioned their opponents' conservative credentials for not swearing to oppose a tax increase under all possible circumstances.
"I'm the only one who will live up to that standard," said Bill Brady, a state senator from Bloomington.
They agreed that Illinois voters are sick of the government corruption that has led to one ex-governor sitting in prison and a second under federal indictment. The best way to win next year's gubernatorial election, they said, is for Republicans to draw a sharp distinction on ethics between the GOP and the Democrats who now control the Legislature and every statewide office.
Still, most of the six _ a seventh candidate, Andy McKenna, did not participate _ rejected proposals to "fumigate" state government by firing most of the people hired by the past two governors.
"We have to watch guilt by association," said Jim Ryan, the former Illinois attorney general. "You have to look at employees, whoever hired them. If they're doing a good job and they're honest and they're efficient and we can afford them, you keep them."
Only Brady backed a general clearing out of the people hired by Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich. "We have to have a clean break from the politics of the past," he said.
Most of the six said they oppose spending state money to bring high-speed rail service to Illinois. A public works program approved earlier this year includes $400 million for high-speed rail, along with $150 million for Amtrak improvements and $300 million to relieve rail congestion in the Chicago area, in an effort to capture even more federal stimulus money.
Supporters say the project would create jobs and make Illinois a more attractive state for business.
Several Republican candidates said it would be wrong to spend that money while the state faces a huge budget deficit. They did not address the fact that the money comes from long-term bonds and couldn't be used to reduce the deficit.
Others said high-speed rail service is simply a bad idea. "This is a boondoggle, plain and simple," said Dan Proft, a Chicago-area public relations consultant.
But Brady said Illinois absolutely must spend money improving infrastructure such as railways, and Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale said he would study the idea by consulting governors in states that already have high-speed rail.
The candidates unanimously criticized Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's proposal to sell an unused prison to the federal government. President Barack Obama is considering moving suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to the empty Thomson prison in northwestern Illinois.
Quinn says a federal prison would mean thousands of jobs for the struggling region, but his potential opponents all said it would be a bad idea to house the terrorism suspects in Illinois. Bob Schillerstrom, chairman of the DuPage County Board, said he would at least talk to federal officials about the idea.
Still, he criticized the state management that has allowed a state-of-the-art prison to sit unused because Illinois lacks the money to open it.
"It's just amazing, the level of incompetence," Schillerstrom said.