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Topinka’s death renews talk of merging offices

SPRINGFIELD — The unexpected death of Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka has rekindled an idea that proponents say could make Illinois government cheaper and more streamlined: merging the office with the state treasurer’s operation, as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan have done.

Democratic state Sen. Kwame Raoul and Republican state Sen. Matt Murphy plan to reintroduce the proposal in the General Assembly during next year’s session. Gov. Pat Quinn says it could be called “Judy’s Amendment,” because the late comptroller favored merging the offices.

But it’s an idea that has been beaten back for decades in Springfield, all the way to the 1970 constitutional convention. Veteran lawmakers remember principled arguments made against it there, though there are also more bureaucratic reasons for some to oppose it.

Here’s a look at arguments for and against a merger:

Checks and balances

Illinois’ comptroller is tasked with writing state checks, while the state treasurer is charged with investing state funds.

With the two jobs so integrally connected, delegates at the 1970 constitutional convention held a lengthy and contentious debate over whether both offices were needed, state records show. Michael Howlett, then auditor of public accounts, state treasurer Adlai Stevenson and delegate Dawn Clark Netsch favored a merger.

Netsch, who later served as state comptroller, introduced an amendment that would have eliminated the treasurer’s office, which she called “inefficient” and “ineffective.” That amendment failed after some delegates argued that having both offices would help maintain checks and balances over the state’s fiscal matters and protect against scandals. One in the 1950s involved the embezzlement of more than $6 million in state funds by State Auditor Orville Hodge, who was responsible for paying bills before the comptroller’s office was established.

Legislative efforts

One of the convention’s delegates who opposed a merger was a young Chicago Democrat named Michael Madigan, who years later as speaker of the House would block numerous efforts to hold a referendum in which voters could decide whether to amend the constitution to combine the offices.

Although the state Senate passed bills calling for such a referendum in 1998, 2000, and 2011, they all became stuck in the House rules committee that the speaker controls.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker is concerned that merging the offices would make it difficult to maintain the oversight and safeguards that the comptroller’s office provides.

But others say there could be political reasons that some lawmakers would prefer to keep both offices, which each have multi-million-dollar budgets.

Comptroller spokesman Brad Hahn said the office currently has a budget of $24 million and 235 employees. The treasurer’s office has 162 full-time employees and a budget of $7.6 million, spokeswoman Mary Frances Bragiel said.

“They’re definitely little fiefdoms, there’s no question about that,” Republican state Sen. Matt Murphy said.

Murphy said Topinka’s death was a “perfect time to assess this whole thing.”

Another try

Despite those concerns, Raoul, of Chicago, pledged Wednesday to again introduce legislation in the new year that would merge the offices, as some other states have done. If both chambers approve the Raoul’s proposed constitutional amendment ballot measure, voters would decide during the November 2016 election whether to eliminate the comptroller position and to assign its duties to the state treasurer.

To amend the constitution, the measure would need the approval of three-fifths of those voting on it or the support of the majority of those voting in the election.

Raoul estimates that merging the offices would save an estimated $12 million a year. He says the savings could be redirected to “core state services” like education, Medicaid and youth employment programs.

Outgoing Gov. Quinn noted Topinka’s support of a merger when he appointed budget director Jerry Stermer as her temporary replacement last week. While he hasn’t said if he supports the idea, he said it should be put to voters.

A different route

As a constitutional amendment is considered, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon has suggested a “speedier way” to combine the two offices.

Simon, a Carbondale Democrat who lost the November comptroller’s race to Topinka, has suggested that incoming state treasurer Mike Frerichs, a Champaign Democrat, be appointed comptroller in the new year and that the offices should share functions through an intergovernmental agreement.

However, neither Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner nor Frerichs have said if they support the idea.

KERRY LESTER, Associated Press