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Editorial: Leslie Munger for comptroller, to help manage an Illinois drowning in debt

Illinois+State+Capitol+in+Springfield.+%28TNS%29
Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. (TNS)

Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. (TNS)

Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. (TNS)

By Chicago Tribune

Question: What’s the primary role of Illinois’ comptroller?

Answer: Juggling.

Without enough money in the state’s main checking account to cover the day-to-day expenses of operating government, the comptroller’s job, during the last decade in particular, has expanded from bookkeeper to circus act: Send a check to pay an overdue invoice today. Calculate interest owed tomorrow. Toss another late bill onto the pile. Catch. Toss. Juggle. And cross fingers.

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Republican Comptroller Leslie Munger is facing criticism from her Democratic opponent, Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza, that Munger has played favorites. Mendoza accuses the incumbent of failing to prioritize payments to social service agencies and other groups that require timely reimbursement from the state in order to survive.

“As comptroller, I will continually serve and protect the most vulnerable populations of this state, and I will not allow myself to be party to a political agenda that, for all intent and purposes, holds payments to the most vulnerable in our state hostage,” Mendoza wrote in her Tribune endorsement survey.

Trouble is, Mendoza’s criticism is wrong. Munger has done yeoman’s work trying to speed payments to at-risk vendors while adhering to court rulings, conflicting opinions and other mandates that limit whatever discretion she might have to pay the bills. There’s only so much a financial officer in a broke state can do. Munger repeatedly warned her fellow Republican, Gov. Bruce Rauner, and the Democratic-led legislature of the harm their budget impasse was causing.

Last spring, she shoved herself and lawmakers to the back of the line — instead of getting their paychecks first and on time, they are now getting paid as money comes in. We hear often from people owed money by the state; they say Munger works daily with charities and small-business owners to put them closer to the top of the bill pile.

More important, Mendoza’s charge misses the true cause of Illinois’ predicament. The comptroller shouldn’t have to be a juggler. If the legislature had passed balanced budgets — if lawmakers didn’t chronically overspend and overpromise — the comptroller’s job would be more administrative and less subjective. That’s how it works in states that pay bills on time. (Yes, it happens.)

Here, the bill backlog is expected to reach $10 billion by January. Social services groups, vendors and other governments owed money wait months for Springfield to pay — school districts included. It’s a disgrace. Illinois’ deadbeat reputation didn’t start on Rauner’s watch, although that’s what Mendoza would like you to believe.

A September 2008 Chicago Tribune headline: “Non-profits struggle as state delays funds; many agencies are pushed to the brink.” Wise words from the spokesman for then-Comptroller Dan Hynes, a Democrat: “The state has been enduring cash flow difficulties for nearly seven years because of structural budget problems that continually get ignored.” Exactly. This mess didn’t erupt early last year when Rauner was sworn in as governor.

Social services providers will tell you the payment cycle worsened with the budget standoff. But for many years they’ve had to fight for attention and beg for funding. In fact, from 2001 to 2011, Mendoza was a Democratic House member who signed off on the very budgets that were not balanced, that skipped full pension payments and that led us to this era of the juggler extraordinaire. Put another way: Where was Mendoza when the legislature continually passed unrealistic budgets? She was in Springfield, voting for them.

Munger bears no such responsibility for Illinois’ financial debacles. She worked in the private sector until Rauner appointed her to her post in January 2015 after the death of Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. The Illinois Constitution gives that appointment duty to the governor.

Mendoza is a rising star in the Democratic Party. She can rightly point to accomplishments on her watch as Chicago’s city clerk. She’s smart and fierce and has shown some independence. But she also has said she considers House Speaker Michael Madigan a mentor and has praised him in glowing terms.

She doesn’t like to talk about that, though. Think about that connection: Mendoza questions Munger’s independence from Rauner, yet Mendoza is closely aligned with Madigan, an architect of Illinois’ financial downfall.

Could Mendoza be a credible check against her mentor? We’re not so sure. Also running for comptroller are Claire Ball, an impressive and accomplished Libertarian Party candidate, and Tim Curtin of the Green Party. You’ll find video of the candidates’ debate before the Tribune Editorial Board at www.chicagotribune.com/compdebate.

We’re endorsing Munger.

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(c) 2016 the Chicago Tribune

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