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What would Judy do? Probably the opposite of what’s happening

With all the hand-wringing involving who has the power to appoint Judy Baar Topinka’s successor for the long-term, I heard a few people sound a similar note.

People should channel the plainspoken, tell-it-like-it-is Topinka, they say, and do what’s “sensible,” rather than turning the popular pol’s sudden passing into a drawn-out political battle.

Still, there is a behind-the-scenes legal war brewing over how to handle what appears to be an unprecedented situation in Illinois government: A constitutional officer dies after winning reelection but before being sworn in for her new term in office.

There are constitutional lawyers parsing words in the Illinois Constitution. Interpretations are flying.

Are there technically two vacancies or one? Does Gov. Pat Quinn’s appointment power now also hold for the full four-year term beginning in January?

Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner says Quinn’s power to appoint is limited, ending when Topinka’s current term would have ended — in early January. Then, when Rauner is sworn into office, he would fill the vacancy for the new four-year term.

Rauner’s lawyers espouse that theory and the Republican has publicly claimed that the power over a long-term appointment is his.

Meanwhile, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, is coming up with a legal opinion.

There is the possibility — likelihood even — over legal action tying up the whole process if Quinn and Rauner cannot find the “sensible solution” House Speaker Mike Madigan advised them to find last week.

Before the taxpayers are on the hook to pay legal battles over the issue, maybe it’s time to consider other alternatives.

One of them would actually save taxpayer money, and it’s something Topinka supported herself: merging the comptroller’s office with the Illinois treasurer’s office.

The move would save taxpayers an estimated $12 million a year.

The last time the state saw a major push to combine both offices was in 2011 when state Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, sponsored the bill that sailed through the Illinois Senate. The measure would have asked taxpayers to change the state constitution and combine the offices.

Topinka, who has held positions as a comptroller and a treasurer, was among those to testify in support of the measure then and in her most recent campaign continued her support, calling it a “no-brainer.”

The 2011 bill languished in the Illinois House when Madigan refused to call it from committee. Madigan at the time said he had reason. He was among those to help craft the original state law that created the two offices in the wake of a scandal that seemed to beg for checks and balances in how the state handles its money.

So generally, the comptroller’s office pays the bills and the treasurer’s office invests the state’s money.

Former Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who lost to Topinka in the 2014 election, opposed combining them but said there were other ways to streamline some of the functions that were redundant in various constitutional offices.

Finally, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, had been exploring whether legislation was needed to bring such a question to the voters so that no politician had the power to appoint a constitutional officer for a four-year term. Rather, the issue would go before the voters by 2016 instead of 2018.

In either case, taxpayers should pay close attention. It’s their pocketbooks at stake.

Heading down a path that will save Illinois residents money rather than layer them with added legal costs not only is worth considering, it’s what one longtime public servant believed was “sensible.”