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Comptroller rivals clash on approach to backlog

SPRINGFIELD — With Illinois battling the nation’s worst unfunded pension liability, the two outspoken statewide office holders vying for its check-writing job are sparring over whether the incumbent has been open enough about how she priorities the multi-billion dollar backlog of unpaid bills.

Democratic challenger Sheila Simon, the lieutenant governor, is trying to paint Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka as an old-style politician using clout to push various agencies to the head of the line. But Topinka says she has a better understanding of the intricacies of the office.

Topinka, a former state treasurer and Illinois GOP chairwoman, likens the job to being a “skunk at a picnic” and sports faux skunk slippers on occasion at the Capitol during her office’s annual cheesecake day in May. Simon, currently lieutenant governor under Gov. Pat Quinn, sews her own clothes and plays banjo in an all-female bluegrass band called “Loose Gravel.”

They both claim they’re in the best position to deal with the state’s current $5.4 billion backlog.

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Illinois for several years has been delaying the payment of billions of dollars in bills for months at a time. This has caused schools, hospitals and social service agencies to borrow money, cut jobs and services and take on personal debt.

Topinka boasts that she has implemented a policy of prioritizing payments for not-for-profit and service agencies that serve the state’s most vulnerable residents. She says there are “no favorites” but that she works with state agencies, lawmakers and vendors themselves to understand which situations are most dire.

But Simon says the office should work to disclose exactly who it’s paying when, and why.

“It’s perfectly legal to be silent about that. I just think it’s wrong,” Simon said. She suggested the comptroller’s office should publicly disclose who agencies getting expedited payments employ, the number of people they serve, and whether they’ve exhausted all other lines of credit.

Topinka calls Simon’s idea unfeasible and “overly simplistic,” noting the state writes checks from hundreds of different funds, some of which have large backlogs, and others which have no backlogs at all. The office is obligated by law to pay for some services, such as foster care, immediately.

Topinka has broken with traditional party positions on a few issues, supporting Illinois’ new same-sex marriage law and opposing a sudden rollback of the state’s income tax increase as scheduled next January in favor of a more of a phased-in approach.

Simon’s campaign has been on the offensive, accusing Topinka of asking for favors after questions were raised recently about what some allege was an attempt to use clout to get her son a job at Southern Illinois University. She was caught on video at a summer bill signing engaging Gov. Pat Quinn in conversation, mentioning her son’s teaching qualifications and repeating “SIU.”

Topinka said she was simply telling Quinn about her son. She recently countered by arguing that Simon, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, has used her own family name for political advantage on the campaign trail.

KERRY LESTER, Associated Press