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Gov. Quinn calls special session on comptroller vacancy

Gov. Pat Quinn apparently has one more fight left in him.

In the waning days of his administration, the outgoing Democratic governor called lawmakers back to Springfield for a special session on Jan. 8 to set up a 2016 election for Illinois comptroller. The announcement follows a call earlier this week by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who said voters should have a hand in choosing a successor to late Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a Republican.

Topinka, 70, died suddenly last week after complications from a stroke.

A spokesman for Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner warned an election to replace Topinka in 2016 could result in “costly litigation.”

“The only route to enact a special election for a statewide officeholder that is absolutely consistent with the constitution is passing a constitutional amendment,” Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf said. “Additionally, any major change like this should apply to all future vacancies and be carefully and thoughtfully discussed — not rushed through in a last-minute special session that would look overtly political.”

Republican leaders in the House and Senate said state officers are elected “every four years” under the state constitution, and they agreed an amendment would be required to do otherwise.

Quinn said holding a special election is the right thing to do. Still, by calling lawmakers back to Springfield, he set the stage for a political show-down just four days before Rauner takes office. Holding the special election in 2016 could also bode well for Democrats, as it’s a presidential election year.

“Judy Baar Topinka’s passing has not only left us heartbroken — the people of Illinois have been left without their elected representative in the comptroller’s office,” Quinn said in a statement. “Nobody but Judy Baar Topinka was elected to do this job. That’s why it’s so important that voters have the soonest possible opportunity to elect their comptroller.”

Quinn’s office reserved its announcement until after the memorial on Wednesday for Topinka in west suburban Countryside.

Topinka was elected to a four-year term in November, but the term she was completing does not end until next month. The political quandary is considered unprecedented in Illinois, and it prompted Madigan to release a legal analysis of the situation Monday.

Madigan said Topinka’s death basically created two vacancies. She said Rauner should get to fill the vacancy that will be created when Topinka does not take her oath of office Jan. 12. But Madigan also said Quinn should get to fill the vacant office in the meantime.

That mostly mirrored Rauner’s own analysis. He declared the matter “settled,” and Republican leaders in the House and Senate followed suit.

But the attorney general took things a step further.

Madigan also said voters should get to vote for a comptroller in 2016. She called it a “fundamental principle in a democracy that the people should elect the officers who represent them.” Another election would follow in 2018 if lawmakers follow Madigan’s proposal.

That prompted Democratic Senate President John Cullerton to call for an “immediate” special legislative session to make the vote happen. He also said “unanswered legal questions” remain. A spokeswoman reaffirmed his support after the governor’s announcement Thursday.

A spokesman for House Speaker Mike Madigan repeated the speaker’s call for Quinn and Rauner to work out a “sensible solution.”