Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan threw everyone a curve Wednesday, me included, when he unexpectedly put his considerable influence behind a move to hold a special election for comptroller in 2016.
I was just coming to grips with the idea that Madigan’s seeming resistance to an election to replace the late Judy Baar Topinka might make some sense.
Then Madigan announced through a spokesman he will support legislation setting out new procedures for filling vacancies in the offices of not only comptroller but also secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer — and expects to win approval.
Until then, Madigan hadn’t really stated his position, although even Democrats reading the speaker’s tea leaves believed he was opposed, presumably rooted in some desire to make nice with incoming Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
After all, Democrats are going to need to find common ground somewhere with Rauner, and letting him have his way on the comptroller’s office wouldn’t have been the end of the world.
Rauner argues his appointee, Leslie Munger of Lincolnshire, is legally entitled under the state Constitution to serve all four years of Topinka’s term. Democrats disagree. That probably means we’re now in for another court fight.
It has been and remains my opinion there ought to be an election for comptroller in 2016.
We shouldn’t have gubernatorial appointees serving an entire four-year term to an elective office when there’s already an election scheduled in two years. The fact the Constitution doesn’t directly address the unprecedented scenario at hand — the death of an elected statewide official before the start of her term — doesn’t change that.
If it were a Democratic governor appointing a Democrat to the job, I’d say the same thing.
Please keep in mind that if we did have a Democratic governor, that’s exactly what he’d be doing right now — appointing a Democrat to fill a vacancy created by the death of an elected Republican — and most of the people who now say they don’t want an election would be calling for one, too.
Still, if Madigan had wanted to use the comptroller’s vacancy as a peacemaking gesture with Rauner, it arguably would have been good politics, just not good policy.
The comptroller’s office serves a very important function — paying the state’s bills.
But truth be told, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference who actually is in charge.
Like most institutions, the place is full of veteran professionals and will pretty much run itself as long as there’s no negative interference from the top.
All you really need is somebody who is honest and competent.
I will assume for now that Munger, Rauner’s appointee, qualifies on both counts.
Before Wednesday, Madigan had shown no interest in the idea of holding a special election in 2016, even though his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, was among the first to suggest it — and even though conventional wisdom is that it would work to the benefit of his party.
Democratic candidates tend to perform better in Illinois in presidential election years, when there is a bigger voter turnout.
But if Democrats hope to have any chance of winning the comptroller’s office in 2016, they’re going to have to go a step further and put one more measure on the 2016 ballot that Madigan continues to resist.
That’s a constitutional amendment to combine the offices of treasurer and comptroller into a single job, which under the latest proposal would be called the “comptroller of the treasury.”
I’d hate to be the Democratic candidate for comptroller in 2016 if voters aren’t given that opportunity to vote on the consolidation question, which Rauner argues is the better course of action than the special election.
Until now, Democrats have been able to pay lip service to the issue, saying they support consolidation, then hide behind legislative inaction blamed on Madigan.
But there will be nowhere to hide in 2016 with Topinka’s death adding fresh fuel to the cause, now being pitched as Judy’s Amendment.
Madigan, a delegate to the constitutional convention that created the comptroller’s office in 1970 to replace the scandal-plagued state auditor, has said his concerns are rooted in the lessons of that time — of the accountability created by separate offices.
Others assume he just sees political advantage in keeping things the way they are.
With Rauner making it an issue, and putting his money where his mouth is, Madigan will find it difficult to stand pat.
When legislators converge on Springfield on Thursday to debate the comptroller replacement, Democrats will be fighting for a special election and Republicans for a constitutional amendment to combine the offices.
Just remember: There’s no reason they can’t do both.