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Fact-checking the fact-challenged candidates for Illinois governor

Kiannah Sepeda-Miller
By Kiannah Sepeda-Miller November 4, 2018

Illinois’ deep-pocketed candidates for governor will almost surely shatter the national spending record for a state contest, and neither have been forthcoming about the personal finances they are tapping to bankroll their campaigns. Yet they both lay claim to transparency.

That’s just a sampler of the dubious, sometimes flat-out false, claims peddled this election year by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker.

Before the votes are tallied on Tuesday, we decided to recap some of our fact-checks over the past many months in the marquee race on the Illinois ballot.

Transparency troubles

Pritzker, a venture capital investor and heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, has outspent Rauner, a private equity investor, nearly two-to-one. Both are mostly self-financed but neither candidate has proved willing to divulge details about their vast personal wealth.

In the months leading up to the March primary, Pritzker insisted he had released "way more" tax information than Rauner, who set quite a low bar because he hadn’t divulged much. As it turned out, Pritzker didn’t either, so we rated his claim to greater transparency as False.

We revisited the transparency issue a few weeks ago when both candidates released another round of ultra-scanty disclosures about their 2017 tax returns. Even so, what those documents did reveal showed both men were adept at leveraging flexibility in the tax code of great benefit to the rich but out of reach for those of more modest means.

Rauner for several years has paid little to nothing in Social Security and Medicare tax. Pritzker, on paper, appears to make far less than multi-millionaire Rauner even though Forbes magazine says the Democrat is worth more than $3 billion.

The two seem to have reached a silent truce when it comes to being unforthcoming about details of their wealth. That nonetheless hasn’t stopped them from hurling accusations about unsavory investments that likely could be proved or debunked if either would release their full tax returns.

In July, a Pritzker ad attacking Rauner for ties to a company that provides health-care services to immigrant-detention facilities accused the governor of profiting off President Donald Trump’s controversial family-separation policy. The Pritzker ad contained a number of questionable assertions but we also found reason to doubt Rauner’s contention that he was merely an "indirect investor."

Pritzker, for his part, has kept a tight hold on information about his own financial ties, even when confronted by unproven accusations from Rauner’s campaign that the Democrat had been "personally profiting" off an investment linked to an oil pipeline project hated by environmentalists.

Rauner characterized Pritzker as a lawbreaker following a recent Cook County inspector general report that labeled a significant property tax break obtained by the Democrat on an empty Gold Coast mansion "a scheme to defraud."

Pritzker has vehemently maintained that all rules were followed, something the IG findings call into question. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is reviewing his tax break.

Democratic Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, meanwhile, is investigating the Rauner administration’s response to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the state-run veterans home in downstate Quincy. The deaths of 14 residents have been linked to the outbreak, with another 70 residents and staff sickened by the disease since 2015, according to WBEZ.

Rauner has contended his team took all necessary actions in a timely manner to protect residents and staff. Yet a WBEZ report revealed the governor’s office played a role in a six-day delay in informing residents, families and the public about the outbreak. Health-safety experts have said the delay aggravated the impact of the outbreak. And Rauner’s own labor department censured his veterans affairs department for failing to "effectively notify all employees" about the outbreak after two workers first fell sick in 2015.

The governor earned a False from us in June for blaming the outbreak on the weather and a Half-True in January for contending the bacteria is present in most water systems.

And we gave Pritzker a Mostly False for blaming the emergence of an unrelated stomach virus at the veterans home on the governor.

Tax taunts

Throughout the campaign, Rauner has tried to paint Pritzker as a tax-loving spendthrift.

He has described Pritzker’s support for a graduated income tax system as tantamount to a massive tax increase for the middle class. We rated that claim Mostly False, with the caveat that Pritzker himself has refused to divulge any rates for his plan, making it impossible to assess precisely what impact an Illinois graduated income tax would have on taxpayers.

Rauner has also repeatedly claimed that graduated income taxes, the norm in most states and at the federal level, always hurt the middle class. We rated that False.

The Republican attempted to tie Pritzker to both taxes and corruption in a recent TV ad that also took aim at Rauner’s longtime nemesis, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, claiming Madigan kept property taxes high to benefit "cronies like Pritzker."

We rated that Mostly False because property tax levies are set at the local level in Illinois and therefore exist outside of the speaker’s control, although Madigan is a partner in a law firm that conducts property tax appeals’ work for owners of commercial property.

In September, Rauner also claimed Pritzker had proposed a vehicle mileage tax to replace the state gas tax. He hadn’t, so we rated that Rauner claim as False.

Budget barbs

Pritzker, meanwhile, has attempted to pin the blame for the state’s protracted budget impasse, which ended last summer, entirely on the governor.

Rauner and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly deadlocked for two years over spending and other policy priorities while the state operated largely on autopilot and state universities and a wide array of human service programs suffered.

Pritzker ran an ad in June blaming Rauner alone for the massive tab the state ran up last year on interest penalties for late payment of bills during that time. Rauner clearly played a key role in that logjam, but he hardly acted alone. We rated Pritzker’s accusation Mostly False.

And Pritzker pushed the issue further in another ad this September with a flimsy claim about Rauner causing the budget impasse and delaying funding for schools as a result.

The impasse did cause state reimbursements for special education, transportation and several other special programs to lag. But general state aid to help fund day-to-day school operations kept flowing. That, too, earned Pritzker a Mostly False.

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Fact-checking the fact-challenged candidates for Illinois governor