Know your ballot: State comptroller race heats up over state budget crisis

Robin Opsahl, Managing Editor

The race for state comptroller in Illinois, usually a low-profile election, has had over $12 million dollars poured into the two candidates’ campaigns, as Republicans and Democrats in the state fight over the position controlling the state’s checkbook.

The position of state comptroller came back under the public eye when then-incumbent Judy Baar Topinka died in late 2014 after winning her re-election. Former Gov. Pat Quinn temporarily appointed Jerry Stermer to the position in 2014, and when Gov. Bruce Rauner took office, he appointed current comptroller Leslie Munger.

After Munger’s appointment, a Democratic-controlled General Assembly enacted a law requiring a special 2016 election. Under normal circumstances, the next comptroller election would have happened in 2018.

Munger is currently in a tight race against Democrat Susana Mendoza, Chicago’s City Clerk, for the elected position. Munger has received support from Rauner and about $10 million in donations from the governor and two supporting businessmen. Mendoza has only raised about $3 million for her campaign largely from unions and the Democratic Party fund, and also has support from Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).

Although many have accused the comptroller race of being a battlefield for powerful Republicans and Democrats, Munger said she rejects the notion.

“I reject the notion that this is a proxy war,” Munger said at a debate earlier this year. “We should be judged for the role of comptroller, not on who might put us in these positions but what we actually have done.”

Illinois’ state comptroller is responsible for overseeing the state’s financial accounts, as well as directly ordering and processing payments into and out of accounts held by the state treasurer.

The position was almost eliminated in 2011 when some legislators criticized the comptroller position existing because of its overlap with state treasurer duties. But because of opposition supported by state Democrats, the move to merge the two positions did not make it into law.

In addition to Munger’s and Mendoza’s campaigns, there are two other candidates in the race: Green Party candidate and former union organizer Tim Curtin and Libertarian candidate Claire Ball, an accountant with U.S. Cellular.

Both Mendoza and Munger believe the office of state comptroller should be independent from the influence of more powerful state politicians, such as Rauner and Madigan. During a College Democrats event at Northwestern on Tuesday night, Mendoza said she believes the $1 million Rauner spent on Munger’s campaign was a “conflict of interest.”

“The minute she accepted it, she sold the office because she is selling the independence of the office,” Mendoza said. “I am not accepting million-dollar contributions from people that I am supposed to oversee. … It’s just wrong, and that is what our state has come to.”

Munger has criticized Mendoza for similar reasons, saying she has taken money from Madigan personally and accepted donations from special interest groups.

The candidates come from very different financial and political backgrounds. State comptroller is Munger’s first position in public office, and previously, she worked as an executive at beauty company Helene Curtis/Unilever.

Mendoza has served as Chicago City Clerk since 2011, and was a state representative for Illinois’ First District in Chicago for 10 years prior.

Despite the stark party lines seen in this race, both candidates share many of the same goals, such as ensuring pay for social services services agencies that struggled to stay afloat during the state’s budget crisis, and working on the backlog of more than $9 billion in unpaid bills the state has yet to address.

The Illinois chapter of the National Association of Social Workers endorsed Mendoza for office. The group said it was happy to see both candidates support paying social services.

“While we are cautiously encouraged that both candidates have run on prioritizing human service payments, we are also justifiably nervous about when human services fall out of favor,” the group said in its endorsement.

However, they added that they were disappointed by the willingness of both candidates to delay politicians’ payroll, a “publicly popular yet likely illegal” practice both candidates said they were willing to use.

Munger has proposed legislation to stop lawmakers from getting paid if they don’t approve a balanced budget. During the state budget crisis, she did not send out paychecks to legislators, as she could not send out payments for Illinois’ other bills that were overdue.

Mendoza also agreed she would halt legislators’ payrolls if another budget crisis occurred.

“Yes, we should not pay elected officials where possible before paying more urgent bills, but when is Comptroller Munger going to stand up to Governor Rauner and demand an end to his extreme agenda and pass a budget?” Mendoza asked in a statement, in response to Munger’s stance.

The winner of the Nov. 8 election will finish out the second half of the term started by Munger in her appointment.

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Twitter: @robinlopsahl