October 01, 2016
Rich Miller on Springfield
By Rich Miller
Photo by AP Images
The Illinois comptroller's election is often described as a proxy war between Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan. It is most definitely that, but the result could change the direction of state government.
Rauner appointed fellow Republican Leslie Munger to the job after Judy Baar Topinka, the fiercely independent and outspoken Republican incumbent, died about a month after her re-election in 2014. Normally, Munger would've received a full four-year term, but Madigan decided that was too long so the Democrats changed the law. Rauner could appoint Munger for two years only.
Several months after Munger's appointment, Madigan helped recruit Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza into the race. And then he, um, nudged state Sen. Daniel Biss out of the Democratic primary to give Mendoza a clear path to the general election.
As a matter of both pride and credibility, the governor has an obligation to help his appointee win. And since Rauner and Madigan are engaged in a long and nasty war, and since Mendoza is Madigan's candidate, the speaker most definitely wants to see her prevail.
Whoever wins this contest will obviously give their political overlords bragging rights. Normally, a Democrat would be heavily favored because it's a presidential election year. But the spectacularly wealthy Rauner is expected to dump a fortune into Munger's campaign.
And this is about far more than one election.
Most people don't always have the money to pay bills as they arrive. If you write a big check before the next paycheck comes in, bad things can happen.
The same thing applies to the comptroller. Even in flush times, if she pays the state's bills (or even a few large state bills) as they come in the door, she can easily crash the state's finances. But without a proper state budget, and amid a severe revenue shortage caused by the partial expiration last year of the income tax hike, these are far from flush times.
So a hostile comptroller would be a bad thing for the governor. Democrat Mendoza could use the power of the checkbook to force the Republican governor into a more compliant position, even without actually crashing state finances.
Munger has used her position to highlight the state's massive $8 billion-plus bill backlog in a way that puts pressure on the General Assembly. She's mainly done this by refusing to pay state legislators when their checks are due, putting them in the same payment line with social services agencies.
And she's also often taken heat off the governor (or put heat on his detractors) by quickly paying (or not so quickly paying) invoices at his request. The governor's office has been running a triage operation for well over a year to keep vital government services from crashing due to lack of revenue while simultaneously battling a belligerent Legislature. A friendly comptroller has been a great help to him.
This impasse could continue throughout Rauner's entire first term, so an antagonistic comptroller could refuse to honor his requests, which would put him in an awful spot.
Mendoza is a pleasant person who can also be a sharp-elbowed street fighter. “I will be an independent, truth-telling fiscal watchdog,” she pledged during the Democratic National Convention in July, “not a lapdog to Rauner.”
So unlike Munger, who has used her media conferences about unpaid bills to blast the General Assembly, Mendoza could use her position to constantly harangue Rauner, perhaps also doing what Topinka did to undermine the credibility of the Quinn administration by showing how it used gimmicks to mask the size of the deficit.
In other words, a lot is at stake here.
A contributing columnist to Crain's, Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.