Four of the seven Democrats running for governor took part in the gubernatorial candidate forum Monday night at the University of Illinois Gregory Hall auditorium. Three of the four said the answer to rising college tuition is to make state college and university tuition free.
Tio Hardiman was one of them. To pay for that free tuition, he says he wants to move to a graduated state income tax. He also was the only candidate to support a tax on financial transactions, like the sale of stocks and commodities. Hardiman estimates those two changes could bring in $5 billion a year in additional state revenue.
“That’s 20 billion dollars of new revenue here for the state of Illinois,” Hardiman said, “so we plan to use some of those funds to make college tuition free, for college students -- and I’m not just saying this because I’m running for governor, this is what we believe in -- make college tuition free, up until the bachelor-degree level.”
State Sen. Daniel Biss said he also supports free tuition at state universities and community colleges. The suburban Chicago lawmaker said free college is as sensible as free public schools.
“We made a decision a hundred years ago as a society, that you need an elementary and secondary education to be competitive,” said Biss, “and so we made free access to universal public elementary and secondary education. Our economy has changed. It’s time for our public services to change with it. And it’s time for free college.”
Madison County Regional Schools Supt. Bob Daiber, the lone downstate candidate, wouldn’t go that far. He called for raising state funding for state colleges and universities, but only back to 2012 levels. Daiber also said state universities need to be at the front of the line when lawmakers are working out the state budget, because they’re both an educational service and an economic engine.
“And it’s got to be a priority, because higher ed is an economic stimulus for this state in every university town,” said Daiber. “Students bring revenue to the state as we attract them. And they also provide revenue when they’re graduates.”
Former University of Illinois Board President Chris Kennedy rejected the premise that other state programs have to make do with less if higher education should be a top priority. He told the crowd that a graduated income tax not only would pay for free state college tuition but also could raise money to help all state programs.
”You can’t say to the state of Illinois, the people of Illinois, that you have a choice between affordable higher education and all other services,” Kennedy said. “That’s not true. What you have a choice between is a state with a great future that’s funded by a progressive, graduated income tax, or a state that stalls out.”
The candidates also answered questions about promoting job growth, helping downstate communities, what to do about state pensions and gun violence.
The biggest response of the night came at the beginning of the forum, when a member of the Illini Democrats greeted the estimated 200 attendees this way: “Thank you all for coming out tonight, the date that marks one year out from the day that we take the state back from Bruce Rauner.”
Candidates Dr. Robert Marshall, Alex Paterakis and J.B. Pritzker did not take part in the forum.