WE ARE ILLINOIS
Mike Madigan blocks GOP plan to save taxpayers $12M annually
By Kristen McQueary - Chicago News Cooperative
The Chicago offices for Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford are next to each other on the 15th floor of the Thompson Center, separated only by a corridor. If Topinka and Rutherford had their way, the divide would disappear entirely.
The pair, both Republicans, introduced legislation in the General Assembly earlier this year to merge the state’s two financial offices, which they said would save about $12 million per year. The measure, which would create a new, single office called the Comptroller of the State Treasury, unanimously passed the Senate on March 31 and attracted 50 sponsors in the House. But it has been held up by Michael Madigan, the state’s influential House speaker.
Madigan (D-Chicago) believes the offices should remain separate, in part because of a scandal that erupted more than 50 years ago.
“You have to deal with the safeguards that led to the creation of the two offices,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said. “Until it does, it’s not a viable bill in the speaker’s mind.”
Madigan, Brown said, is wary of eliminating the checks that led to the state’s former auditor being imprisoned for embezzlement. Orville Hodge, the state auditor from 1952 to 1956, was jailed for more than six years after he was found to have stolen over $1.5 million from the state. Hodge covered his tracks initially by falsifying checks and creating a fake paper trail, all while buying two private jets, new cars, property in Florida and a lake house in Springfield.
Delegates to Illinois’ constitutional convention in 1970 sought to create better oversight of the office charged with managing the state’s money and divided the position in two. The treasurer’s office invests the state’s money while the comptroller manages the state’s day-to-day checking account.
But changes in technology and the creation of a statewide auditor, who inspects the books of both offices, have eliminated the possibility of a financial scandal similar to Hodge’s, Rutherford and Topinka said.
“We are a very transparent, electronic system,” Rutherford said of the financial management processes in the treasurer’s office. “There is no cash, or certificates, sitting in a vault in my office that someone could walk away with.”
Topinka and Rutherford said they could save the state about $12 million each year by reducing staff and sharing office space and technology. Together, the two offices employ about 425 people.
“There is no downside to this bill. Absolutely no downside,” said Topinka, who also served as treasurer from 1994 to 2007. “How can you refuse the low-hanging fruit of combining two offices, which makes eminently good sense, to save $12 million annually?”
Topinka said 23 states have one statewide financial officer, and “they’re doing just fine.”
The legislation to consolidate the two offices remains stalled in the House rules committee, which is made up of three Democrats who are part of Madigan’s leadership team and two Republicans.
In January, House Republicans attempted to change House protocol. Any bill supported by 71 or more members—a super majority—would automatically be discharged from the rules committee under a proposal introduced by House Republican Leader Tom Cross.
“It is not reasonable to grant any one House member the authority to prevent House consideration of legislation that is supported by most House members,” Cross wrote of the proposal.
That measure went nowhere.
“All I’m asking of him is look, gimme a vote straight up or down,” Topinka said of Madigan, who is also chairman of the state Democratic party.
But Brown said the speaker would not call the bill and let lawmakers decide because the legislation is “not in very good shape.”
Rutherford suggested that politics may also factor in to Madigan’s reticence to advance the bill, which would eliminate an office that has been used as a stepping stone to higher office.
“The majority of people in these positions over four decades have been Democrats,” Rutherford said. “And this is a pretty Democratic state.”
SOURCE: Chicago News Cooperative
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