Comptroller hopefuls wrangle over pensions, state spending

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Illinois State Comptroller Leslie Munger, left, and City Clerk Susana Mendoza are facing off in one of the most watched races, for state comptroller. Munger favors merging the comptroller and treasurer’s office. Mendoza is less sure. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The candidates for state comptroller tangled Thursday over questions about whether the cash-strapped state should have paid out more than $4 million in bonuses to some employees and whether Democratic challenger Susana Mendoza’s two public pensions make her part of the problem.

Appearing before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, the four candidates running for comptroller sought to discredit accusations lodged against them while trying to show that they’d stand up to help fund the state’s most vulnerable agencies should they win.

It’s a high stakes race for a low-profile office that is viewed as a battle between Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Gov. Bruce Rauner. The state’s financial woes and lengthy budget stalemate highlighted the difficulties of getting payments made to social service agencies, and other entities desperate for funds, putting the typically somewhat obscure comptroller’s office in the spotlight.

Republican Leslie Munger, a Lincolnshire business executive appointed comptroller by Rauner after the death of Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, and Mendoza, Chicago City Clerk, have thus far tried to distance themselves from their party leaders — Mendoza saying she’d stand up to Madigan, and Munger saying she’s stood up to Rauner.

“Both of them need to get to work and start acting like adults,” Mendoza said of both Madigan and Rauner and the state’s ongoing struggle to get a balanced budget.

Munger in turn tried to shift the focus on Mendoza and her past in the state Legislature, saying the state’s fiscal crisis was “a decade in the making” and tried to point out that Mendoza voted for unbalanced budgets “for her mentor Speaker Madigan.”

Munger has repeatedly said as comptroller she’s only allowed to write checks for payments she’s legally able to make, through appropriation bills, consent decrees and court orders. And speaking alongside Mendoza, Libertarian candidate Claire Ball and Green Party candidate Tim Curtin, Munger said she has gone to agencies to “rifle through the vouchers that we have available to pay.”

“We find something we can pay and get those payments made,” Munger said.

She said agencies close to shutting their doors are sometimes given some vouchers to keep them afloat: “It’s not the way we should be running the state.”

Mendoza argued there isn’t enough transparency about how the comptroller’s office is prioritizing payments: “My priority will always be to look to the most vulnerable,” Mendoza said.

Ball, an accountant, blasted the state for signing checks for $4.1 million in bonuses to Illinois Department of Transportation employees, which were doled out in late August. But Munger said that money was tied into union labor contracts, also saying she didn’t know they were bonuses when she signed the checks.

“We don’t see actually what is in that payroll specifically. We don’t see the detail of what they’re paying. That again is under IDOT,” Munger said, adding she doesn’t have the authority to tell departments what they can and cannot pay.

“Those payrolls come in from IDOT and if they’re within their budget, they get paid,” she said.

The four candidates are vying for a special two-year term, the balance left in Topinka’s term.

Among the campaign issues is Munger’s assertion that Mendoza should give back one of two pensions she collected as she served as both a project coordinator for the city’s planning department and an elected state representative. In an attempt to link her to the state’s pension mess, Munger’s campaign called that an embodiment of “all the problems that have led us to this place.”

Mendoza worked in Chicago’s city planning department starting in 1998 and served as a state representative from 2001 until 2011.

Mendoza on Thursday said she was docked city pay when she was in Springfield, and her pension contributions reflected those docked hours. She said she saw no problem in working two jobs.

In an email dated Jan. 8, 2002, Mendoza provided her legislative schedule to the city’s Planning Department, writing that it was “extremely important that during the days I am in session, I not be paid by the City as well.”

“It is of utmost importance to me that my records be perfectly clear regarding the matter,” Mendoza wrote in the City Hall email.

“When I retire, I will only have one pension because I get to fold them into the same pension,” Mendoza said Thursday, adding she chose the “regular” Chicago pension, rather than the more lucrative “Cadillac” plan.

In defending her pensions, Mendoza called Munger “the embodiment of the two worst governors in the history of the state of Illinois,” saying imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich also launched the same pension accusation in 2008, accusing her of halting a construction plan to get back at his effort to ban office holders from working two public jobs at once.

Mendoza’s campaign has also sought to highlight that Munger has listed Elizabeth Brandt, mayor of Lincolnshire as her campaign chairwoman. Of importance is that Lincolnshire in December adopted right-to-work rules, passing a controversial labor ordinance that gives union-covered employees the option of whether or not to pay dues.

But Munger on Thursday denied Brandt’s involvement in her campaign, calling it an “error” that she did not remove her from paperwork filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Brandt’s name is still listed on her paperwork for her comptroller campaign.

Curtin, who believes a financial transaction tax would help save the state, said he’s running because people are “angry” in Illinois. He said he’d be an advocate for the people, and is proud of his “$400 war chest” in his campaign fund.

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