Secretary of state hopefuls focus on modernization, differ on fees

By Jerry Nowicki | Capitol News Illinois

For the first time since 1998, the secretary of state seat in Illinois will be an open one in the general election.

The candidates to fill it are former state treasurer and Chicago Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, and longtime state Rep. Dan Brady, a deputy House minority leader from Bloomington.

Giannoulias is seeking to re-enter the statewide political landscape for the first time since his 2010 loss in the race for U.S. Senate to Republican Mark Kirk by about 59,000 votes. Brady has served in the House since 2001, after spending two terms as McLean County coroner from 1992 until 2000. He’s also a partner at a Bloomington funeral home.

They’re vying to replace outgoing Secretary of State Jesse White, who has held the position since 1999 and is known for consistently outperforming the rest of the Democratic statewide field throughout his time in office. Both men praised White, who endorsed fellow Democrat Giannoulias but has also spoken highly of Brady.

Brady, meanwhile, recently was endorsed by Republican Jim Edgar, former governor and secretary of state.

The two candidates each participated in recent interviews organized by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors, with questions posed by representatives of the Springfield State Journal-Register and Capitol News Illinois.

Both have a long list of policies they’d like to implement if elected, with a heavy focus on modernizing the office and putting many of its functions online.

Giannoulias said he’d look to create a mobile app and that by moving many services online he’d cut down foot traffic at facilities “anywhere from 50 to 70 percent.” That would allow the office to retrain some driver services employees to serve as “office advocates” to help individuals through the system, especially seniors and individuals with disabilities.

“People are paying a time tax in Illinois. It takes too long for them to access government services,” Giannoulias said.

He’d also look to implement a “skip-the-line” program to allow driver services visitors to register for and arrive at a specified time, then move to the front of the line. He also wants to explore digital IDs and driver’s licenses, creating kiosks at driver facilities and creating pop-up offices at libraries and community colleges, and would consider implementing online vision tests if they can be done safely.

Brady has his own long list of initiatives, including moving services online, using libraries and community colleges as satellite sites, maximizing staff training and capabilities, and making the office’s website more user-friendly.

One focus has been an electronic lien and title transfer program that’s been written into state law for years but has languished without proper implementation. It’s something Giannoulias wants to implement as well.

“We’re talking about streamlining things that can be done within hours … versus, as I said, the several weeks to months that’s taking right now,” Brady said. “What we’re missing here is someone who’s going to take the bull by the horns and get the project done.”

Brady said he’d also look to fully staff driver services facilities, something he said hasn’t been done because of current “internal decisions.” He said he would prioritize facilities with the heaviest traffic and cross-train driver and vehicle service staff members to reduce wait times.

The office itself has more than 4,000 employees and touches many aspects of state government beyond driver services, including management of the Capitol Complex in Springfield, maintaining a police force, policing securities fraud, registering lobbyists and serving as the state librarian.

Brady said some of the best ideas for improving operations are likely to come from employees.

With similar focuses of modernizing the office and reducing wait times, each candidate touted their experience as the reason they’re best fit for the office.

“I’m running for this office not because I want to use it as a springboard to another political office. I’m running because I’ve always been and will continue to be a public servant,” Brady said.

Brady said he’s worked across the aisle on budgets and other issues and worked with White to address distracted driving and implement senior driver education programs. His private-sector funeral home experience and time as McLean County coroner also buoy his credentials, he said.

Giannoulias, meanwhile, says his time as state treasurer will greatly benefit him as he once again seeks statewide office. So will his time in business, he said.

“I will tell you having run a statewide office before, I think that’s experience that is important, that is relevant. It’s the management of a large office, and modernization will be at the forefront of everything we do in that office,” he said.

Giannoulias said his accomplishments as treasurer include implementation of a low-interest loan program for first-time homebuyers. He also defended his management of the Bright Start college savings program, for which he received scrutiny in his 2010 Senate campaign. While one fund lost money, he said, he improved the fee structures for the college savings program and increased enrollment.

Since he left office, Giannoulias was appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn as chair of the Illinois Community College Board and spent time on the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the Chicago Public Library Board and various nonprofit boards.

While the two candidates shared a modernization focus, they diverged on the issue of license fee reductions. Brady has proposed cutting license registration fees by $50 temporarily due to rising inflation, but he had not yet filed a bill to do so.

Giannoulias, meanwhile, called it “irresponsible budgeting” to suspend fees regardless of a person’s income without identifying funding alternatives. But he said he would consider a program that would cut fees for lower-income individuals, provided there is a budget workaround.

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