Money And Mentors Are At The Heart Of The Comptroller Battle

Nov 5, 2016

There wasn't supposed to be an election for a statewide constitutional officer this year.  But Democrats essentially forced one, following the sudden death of Republican Judy Baar Topinka after she'd won the 2014 election for comptroller, but before she'd been inaugurated. 

Democrat Susana Mendoza, left, is challenging incumbent Republican appointee Leslie Munger for the two-years remaining in the Illinois Comptroller term.
Credit Candidate websites

The race has been expensive and competitive, and it could show who's winning the war of public opinion between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Who knows what would have happened had Democrats held onto the governor's office in 2014?

Instead, a Republican Governor -- Rauner -- got to choose someone to fill the role that Topinka had won.

Rauner chose Leslie Munger, a former Helene Curtis executive from Lincolnshire who'd just lost a tight race for a seat in the Illinois House.

But the Democrats who control the General Assembly -- rather than let Munger keep the job for the term's four full years -- passed a law: The next statewide election, there'd be a special contest to choose who'll get the job for the final two.

Which brings us to today. Munger is trying to fend off a challenge from the Democratic nominee, Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza, a former state representative.

And it’s all for an office that some people probably have never heard of, let alone know what it does -- to write the state's checks.

The Illinois treasurer invests the money; the comptroller disperses it.

Given that Illinois doesn't actually have enough money to pay all of its bills, the comptroller’s role has taken on an elevated importance. 

The stack of overdue bills is high – $9,076,000,000 -- and growing.

The comptroller doesn't have a ton of leeway. State law puts some bills at the top of the stack, and lawsuits require that others be paid.

While the comptroller has no official role in developing or passing a budget, there is some wiggle room.

How do you make that matter to voters?

Both candidates have latched on to something that may resonate with the public.

Here's the idea Munger unveiled this summer, at the state fair.

“I'm introducing legislation which I'm calling No Budget, No Pay,” she said then. “Here's the way it works: If the General Assembly and Governor can't agree on a budget, they don’t get paid. It's just that simple. No retroactive pay either."

But there's a hitch. The legislation would actually have to be in the form of a constitutional amendment -- which would take at least a couple of years. 

Until that happens (which is unlikely), neither the comptroller -- nor any other official -- has the power to suspend lawmakers' pay. Period.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn tried to do it. He ordered that legislators not get paid until they passed a pension overhaul, and the courts said "no way."

The constitution explicitly says legislators' pay cannot be diminished mid-term.

Further, there a question of the separation of powers. The executive, legislative and judicial branches are supposed to be equal.

Munger herself basically admitted this in a debate on WTTW-TV. "We all saw what happened when Gov. Quinn trying to stop paying the legislators," she said.

But she believes she has found a way around this.

Lawmakers are still getting paid. They're just getting their paychecks months after they were supposed to go out. In essence, she's put them at the bottom of the stack of overdue bills.

“I've heard a lot of complaints about this, and I'm probably never going to win a popularity contest among the legislators in Springfield,” Munger told the state fair crowd. “But you know, that's okay, I’m okay with that, because it's the right thing to do."

Of course, the popularity contest she's trying to win is the public one -- the election.

But Munger didn't take that step right away. Illinois was without a budget for ten months before she delayed legislators' pay.

According to Mendoza, Munger waited too long.

"I would continue that policy,” Medoza said during that WTTW debate. “What I object to is the fact that she waited until election time to come find religion on this issue.  She had ten months to do it ... and she chose by her own admission to continue to pay politicians, and herself, before paying social service providers."

Mendoza says it was an election-time stunt – and she’s latched onto it, too.

Here's an exchange from one of her ads:

Mendoza: "Do you know what the comptroller does?”
Man: “Controls stuff?”
Mendoza: “Yeah, your tax dollars. The comptroller can make sure that the politicians in Springfield are the last to get paid when they don’t pass a budget.”
Woman: “You can do that?”
Mendoza: “I can, and I will."

Mendoza says the power of the comptroller's office is in prioritizing what bills to pay.

Recently, Munger sent out checks worth millions in bonuses to non-union state employees. She says she had no choice: She pays what state agencies submit.

But Mendoza says Munger could have asked departments to split the bonuses from workers' regular paychecks, and then put the bonuses at the back of the line.

There are other issues in the race, too.

Munger accuses Mendoza of "double dipping" while she was a state representative and a Chicago city employee at the same time.

Mendoza seized on a Munger mishap with math. When a reporter gave each candidate a pop quiz, Mendoza aced it. Munger flubbed the basic multiplication questions.

And each woman has done her best to bring the other down by tying her to bigger -- and less-beloved -- names in Illinois politics. 

Mendoza says Munger has abetted Gov. Rauner in pushing Illinois's budget to the crisis point. After all, he not only appointed her; Rauner's funneled millions of dollars into Munger's campaign.

Gov. Bruce Rauner, left, and House Speaker Mike Madigan

"By every measurable account, the state of Illinois is doing worse than we were two years ago,” Mendoza said. “They (Rauner and Munger) were supposed to make it better, and you have helped him make it worse."

Munger says Mendoza is the darling of unions, and of Speaker Madigan. 

"In the ten years that she was in the legislature, she voted for unbalanced budgets,” Munger said. “We had $30 billion in unfunded pension liabilities before they took two years of pension holidays ... all of these things collectively now are creating the financial crisis we have today."

Both candidates say those attacks are unwarranted, and cite their independence.

Despite all of the money that's been poured into the race, the last polls -- albeit they're outdated now -- show a large number of voters were undecided.

Neither Munger or Mendoza has strong name recognition. With voters paying attention to the presidential race or maybe something local, how many people are really fixated on the contest for a strange-sounding fiscal office?

That’s why the race has largely been described as a "proxy war" between Rauner and Madigan.

It's a contest where voters may be less prone to cast a ballot based on personality and more based on party. 

Whoever wins will be under plenty of constraints in attempting to manage the state's drained checking account.

But she also will have the ability to do so in a fashion that could make life harder -- or easier -- for the governor.