SPRINGFIELD — Republicans called the special-election bill “political thievery.”
They called it a “naked power grab.”
But Democrats portrayed it as “a victory for democracy.”
No matter what you call it, Republicans couldn’t stop a Democratic-led Legislature from passing a measure that triggers a special election in 2016 so voters can choose a comptroller in the wake of Judy Baar Topinka’s death.
“It’s a brazen, partisan, politically motivated power play. Period,” Rep. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights) told the House on Thursday afternoon during a contentious hourlong debate at the Capitol in Springfield.
The bill also cuts in half the term of incoming Comptroller Leslie Munger, who was hand-picked by Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner to fill Topinka’s office. Munger has said she will run in 2016 if a special election is held, but a spokesman could not be reached Thursday.
The bill crafted by Senate President John J. Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan next heads to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who called it a “victory for democracy in Illinois” and promised to sign it. It cleared the House 66 to 40 and the Senate 37 to 15.
“This legislation keeps the power to choose statewide elected officials where it belongs — with the people,” Quinn said in a statement.
Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf called the bill “constitutionally dubious.”
“The governor-elect remains committed to working with members of both political parties to pass ‘Judy’s Amendment’ and finally merge the comptroller and treasurer offices, which would be a true victory for taxpayers,” Schrimpf said.
A Rauner source said there are no plans to sue over the special-election bill.
Rauner came up frequently Thursday as Republicans assailed what they called a “shameful” attempt to strip the incoming governor of his constitutional authority.
They said it poisons the well on the eve of a new administration that will bring two-party rule to Springfield. State Rep. Dwight Kay (R-Glen Carbon) said it’s “pure and simple politics.”
“We don’t like the fact that we have a Republican governor that is going to be sworn in and so, at the eleventh hour, bingo, we’re going to stick it to them,” Kay said. “We’re going to do something that has never been done in state history to stick it to Gov. Rauner. And by golly, Mr. Speaker, we enjoy this. Well I say this, this is a pretty doggone bad start to a state that has an awful lot of bad problems.”
Republicans said Democrats needlessly rushed to pass the bill before Monday’s inauguration. They said it would be more appropriately passed as a constitutional amendment — which could not be done before 2016.
Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, promised a legal challenge would be forthcoming. And he accused Cullerton of throwing the “first partisan punch” of the new year — days before a new governor takes office.
“Is it really worth having a shot at two years at the comptroller’s office, to start off this new relationship with this new tone?” Murphy said. “Is it really that important to have that office?”
Cullerton said the constitution leaves “unsettled” the question brought to light with Topinka’s death last month. She died after winning re-election but before starting her new term.
Cullerton also denied it’s a partisan move — even though a 2016 vote will happen in a presidential year favorable to Democrats.
“We don’t know who’s going to run,” Cullerton said. “We don’t know who’s going to win.”
Cullerton and other Democratic leaders said Munger could potentially sue over a “property right” to a four-year term if the Legislature waited to trigger a 2016 special election after Munger takes office next week.
Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, in committee and before the House, linked the bill to a tenet of democracy, allowing the people to vote for an elected official.
“Do you want to give the public the opportunity to fill that slot, part way through what would have been a four-year term or don’t you?” Currie asked. “It’s a question about democracy. It’s a question about our trust in the people of the state of Illinois.”
Earlier in the day, Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago told his fellow lawmakers he wants to pursue merging the comptroller’s office with the treasurer’s when the next General Assembly begins its work. Republicans at times tried to turn the conversation back to that merger — complaining that there’s no reason it couldn’t happen now.
Currie called that a “smoke screen.”
“ ‘We can’t deal with this, because we’re not dealing with that,’ ” Currie said. “It’s a completely different issue, completely separate from what this is about.”
The special election bill’s passage was all but assured after Madigan threw his considerable support behind it Wednesday.
The bill also triggers special elections for attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer, should any of those offices become vacant if there are more than 28 months remaining in the term.