GOP state Rep. Tom Demmer questions Democratic tax, spending policies in race against Illinois Treasurer Mike Frerichs – Chicago Tribune

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Democratic incumbent Michael Frerichs and Republican Tom Demmer are competing for an office that deals primarily in dollars and cents, but issues from abortion to the failed graduated-rate income tax amendment have also found a way into the campaign for Illinois treasurer.

Frerichs, 49, a former state senator from Champaign, has touted his accomplishments over two terms in office, which he said include returning more unclaimed property to residents, starting new investment programs and making significant changes to the state’s Bright Start college savings program.

Demmer, 36, a state representative from Dixon, said he’s “trying to run with a focus on what’s the state’s financial situation, what pressures do families have because of the taxes and the spending in Illinois.”

Demmer has promised to serve as a check on Democratic-dominated state government while also emphasizing his experience as budget point person for House Republicans in Springfield.

State Rep. Tom Demmer, Republican nominee for Illinois state treasurer, at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting at the Palmer House Hilton on Oct. 6, 2022.

State Rep. Tom Demmer, Republican nominee for Illinois state treasurer, at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting at the Palmer House Hilton on Oct. 6, 2022. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

One of his main lines of attack on Frerichs is over remarks the treasurer made in 2020, when he said voter approval of a graduated income tax on the ballot that November could open the door to conversations about whether the wealthiest retirees should have some of their retirement income taxed.

The comment was seized upon by Republicans, even as Frerichs went on to repeatedly insist he opposed any state tax on retirement income.

Demmer’s website features a petition that reads “Do you agree that we should protect, NOT tax, Illinois citizens’ retirement? Let Tom know you stand with him!”

Frerichs said Demmer is using the retirement income tax argument simply to distract voters.

“I do not support and will not support the retirement tax,” Frerichs said. “My opponent knows this. He continues to repeat this lie, and I think it’s because he is scared to talk about his extreme positions.”

Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs presents an award during the National Forum for Black Public Administrators-Chicago’s Marks of Excellence Awards ceremony at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago on Oct. 13, 2022.

Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs presents an award during the National Forum for Black Public Administrators-Chicago’s Marks of Excellence Awards ceremony at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago on Oct. 13, 2022. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a debate this month that he would not take another swing at implementing a graduated income tax in Illinois, which suffered a bruising defeat at the hands of voters in 2020.

But Demmer told the Tribune he is convinced the graduated income tax proposal will be back.

“I don’t believe that the graduated tax is dead in the water,” he said. “The spending trend of the last couple of years has shown that while voters rejected that graduated tax in 2020, Democrats continue to spend as if they approved it.”

Demmer was one of only two candidates on a Republican slate backed by billionaire Ken Griffin to survive the primary in June. Frerichs has tried to question Demmer’s appetite for the treasurer’s post.

“He wanted to be secretary of state and hasn’t bothered to really study this job,” Frerichs said. “He said he was running for secretary of state until Ken Griffin told him we have a candidate for secretary of state and then he announced for treasurer.”

Demmer did not respond directly when asked about Frerichs’ claim that he wanted to run for secretary of state, instead pointing to his experience working on financial issues in Springfield.

“The treasurer’s office is one where I see a real opportunity for somebody to speak up more about the condition of Illinois finances, about how tax-and-spend policies affect Illinois families,” he said.

Frerichs also said Demmer has waffled on his support for Republican candidate for governor Darren Bailey, depending on the audience. Bailey, branded by Pritzker as “too extreme for Illinois,” was endorsed by former President Donald Trump in the primary and handily defeated Griffin’s candidate, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin.

Demmer said he has not endorsed Bailey, nor has Bailey endorsed him. In an Aug. 9 news conference, Demmer said “yes” when asked whether Bailey would make a good governor, but said he disagreed with Bailey’s controversial comparison of abortion to deaths in the Holocaust.

“I don’t think the Holocaust should be used as a comparison with anything,” he said.

In an election year during which women’s reproductive rights are front and center, Frerichs has worked to make abortion an issue in the race, even while acknowledging “choice doesn’t have much to do with the treasurer’s office.”

Frerichs has argued that Demmer, who received a “fully pro-life” rating from Illinois Right to Life in June, has adapted his position depending on his audience.

“If he says no, I support reasonable exceptions (for legal abortion), then I think the people of Illinois Right to Life would like to know that before they vote based on his survey,” he said.

In response, Demmer said that Frerich’s comments “are consistent with his constant deception and deflection of responsibility.”

Demmer accused Frerichs of “trying to get attention by talking about abortion instead of the important fiscal issues facing Illinoisians to deflect from his dismal record of increasing taxes and spending.”

“He continues to prove he is not the fiscal watchdog the people of Illinois need,” Demmer said.

There is one issue on which both candidates agree. Demmer and Frerichs have each stated their support merging the treasurer’s office with the comptroller’s office, which oversees the state’s checkbook.

It’s a perennial election-year issue that would need to be executed in a constitutional amendment approved first by three-fifths majorities in both chambers of the legislature and then by voters. Such a referendum has never gone on the ballot, but both candidates said they’d support the idea.

Frerichs offered a technical take on how such a merger might unfold, noting that some responsibilities the treasurer and the comptroller currently split might need to be delegated.

“You could take some of the incompatible duties and give them to the attorney general or the auditor general, or the secretary of state or to the governor’s office and then still find some economies of scale, still have a reduction in duplicate services and save the taxpayers money,” he said.

Demmer has filed legislation in Springfield that would begin the process of putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot, and cast the issue as a common sense reform.

“The important part is that Illinois voters are given the chance to weigh in on this and do something that has for years been talked about as an opportunity for some streamlining and savings, but has always been stymied by some kind of backroom force under the Capitol dome,” he said.

The treasurer also is the steward of the state’s 529 college savings program, Bright Start. Frerichs’ office switched the contract for supervising the funds under Bright Start from Oppenheimer’s OFI Private Investments to Union Bank and Trust in 2017 in an effort to reduce fees and offer more investment choices.

“We took our program from one of the worst in the nation, a bronze rating, to literally tied for first, a gold grade,” Frerichs said.

Demmer questioned that rosy picture of the college savings program, noting that his 5-year old daughter’s Bright Start account had seen “double-digit losses” along with the rest of the stock market.

He said he wasn’t worried about his own child’s savings account, but about older children who are closer to needing to put that money toward tuition.

“Having a loss when you still have 13 years before you need the money, that’s all part of the long-run investing, but that’s a very different story from somebody who is losing double digits and they’re 17 years old,” he said.

Demmer added that the treasurer should be more proactive in communicating with families about their risk profiles and helping them come up with good investing strategies.

Frerichs accused Demmer of fearmongering over Bright Start and said his opponent doesn’t understand the program.

“We have structured for parents an option that will move them more out of equities and into bonds as they get closer to their child’s graduation,” he said.

If parents are following the age-adjusted investing guidelines, Frerichs said, their accounts will be much more stable when the stock market dips.

Demmer said he’d work to implement a program passed in the federal 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that allows families to use 529 accounts to help pay for private elementary and secondary education.

Frerichs said he’d put such a program into effect if the General Assembly implemented it for Illinois — while pointing out that, as a legislator, Demmer has more power over that than he does but has not acted on the issue.

“Rep. Demmer had no interest in filing legislation to make these changes while serving in the statehouse,” he said.

Frerichs has reported having considerably more campaign cash than Demmer. He had more than $2 million in his campaign fund on July 1 and as of Friday had reported raising nearly $755,000 in additional contributions, state records show.

Demmer began the general election period on July 1 with more than $465,000 cash on hand in his campaign fund and as of Friday had reported receiving nearly $94,000 in additional large-dollar contributions, state records show.

Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.

ckubzansky@chicagotribune.com

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October 17, 2022 at 07:00AM

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