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Want To Win Over Voters? Threaten To Strip Lawmakers Of Their Pay: The Race For Comptroller

Amanda Vinicky

There wasn't supposed to be an election for a statewide constitutional officer this year, but Democrats essentially foisted one, following the sudden death of Republican Judy Baar Topinka. That's led to an expensive, competitive race for comptroller this year --- a race that could show who's winning the war of public opinion in Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan's battle for Illinois' future.

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

Instead, a Republican Governor got to choose someone to fill the role a Republican had won.

He 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 rather than let her keep the job for the term's four full years, Democrats, who control the General Assembly, 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's trying to fend off a challenge from Democrat's nominee, Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza, a former state representative.

All for an office that some people have probably never heard of, let alone know what it does.

Which is: To write the state's checks. (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 role's taken on an elevated importance. The stack of overdue bills is high -- $9.76 billion, and growing.

The comptroller doesn't have a ton of leeway. State law puts some bills at the top of the stack, lawsuits requires others be paid. Further, the comptroller has no official role in developing or passing a budget.

Still, the office has some wiggle room.

Unless you're a vendor doing business with the government, a state employee, or a social service agency on the verge of closing up shop waiting for grant money to come through, late checks are something most voters probably don't care much about.

But both candidates have latched on to something that may resonate with the public: Punishing legislators in their personal wallets.

"I'm introducing legislation which I'm calling No Budget, No Pay," Munger said this summer at a Republican Illinois State Fair rally, leading the crowd to clap and cheer. "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. Doing that could happen in 2018 at the earliest.

Until that happens (which is unlikely, given that legislators aren't apt to pass a resolution putting their own salaries in jeopardy to get the question on the ballot) neither the comptroller, nor any other official, has the power to suspend lawmakers' pay.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn tried to do it. He ordered legislators not get paid until they passed a pension overhaul, and the courts ruled it illegal.

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 in late October.

"We all saw what happened when Gov. Quinn trying to stop paying the legislators," she said.

Munger 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. But you know, that's okay, I’m okay with that, because it's the right thing to do," she said at the fair.

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

Illinois was without a budget for ten months before she delayed legislators' pay.

Mendoza, during that WTTW debate, said Munger waited too long.

"I would continue that policy, what I object to is the fact that she waited until election time to come find religion on this issue," Mendoza said. "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.

One that she's seized onto.

In one of her ads plays like this:

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, and recently, Munger sent out checks worth millions, in bonuses to non-union state employees.

The comptroller 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" as she was a state representative and a Chicago city employee at the same time. Mendoza seized a Munger's mishap with math. When a reporter gave each candidate a pop quiz, Mendoza aced it. Munger flubbed the basic multiplication questions.

Each woman has  also done her best to bring the other down by tying her to a bigger, and less-beloved, names in Illinois politics.

Mendoza says Munger has abetted Gov. Rauner in shoving Illinois's budget to the crisis point. After all, he not only appointed her. Rauner's funneled some of his personal wealth into Munger's campaign, including a $1 million cash infusion on Halloween.

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

Munger, meanwhile, 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, 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 poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University (albeit it's somewhat outdated now) showed a large number of voters were undecided.

Neither Munger or Mendoza have heavy name recognition, and with voters paying attention to the presidential race, how many people are really fixated on the contest for a strange-sounding fiscal office?

Which is why the race has largely been described as a "proxy war" between Gov. Rauner, and Democratic Party of Illinois Chairman Madigan. It's a contest where voters may be less prone to cast a ballot based on personality, and more based on party or on effective advertising.

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

But she will also have the ability to do so in a fashion that could make life harder, or easier, for Gov. Rauner as the state's temporary spending plan is set to expire, meaning he'll once again be at the helm of a state without a budget.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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