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New Illinois comptroller on state’s financial crisis: ‘We’re going to get out of this’

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)

Democrat Susana Mendoza was sworn in as Illinois comptroller Monday, saying bipartisan agreement is needed to get the state out of its fiscal crisis, but also saying GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “turnaround agenda” shouldn’t be linked to passing a budget.

“I don’t think that the approach of tying non-budgetary related items to the budget has proved fruitful for Illinoisans,” Mendoza, 44, told reporters concerning Rauner’s priorities, which have ranged from term limits and a property-tax freeze to limiting some collective bargaining and lowering workers’ compensation costs. “I think all of those things independently should be standing on their own merits and should not be tied to the budget.”

As when she delivered her Election Night acceptance speech upon defeating Republican Leslie Munger on Nov. 8, Mendoza wore a red suit that used to belong to GOP Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. Topinka’s death on Dec. 10, 2014, after winning a new four-year term created a vacancy that Rauner filled with the appointment of Munger. Last month’s election was to complete the second two years of Topinka’s term.

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Mendoza said that Topinka’s son, Joe, gave her the suit after his mother’s death, and also loaned her a Topinka family Bible to use during Monday’s swearing-in. The oath was administered by Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, and Mendoza was joined by her mother, also named Susana; her husband, David Szosak, and their son, David, who turned 4 on Sunday, as she was sworn in at the Statehouse rotunda.

“I plan to follow the shining example of my friend and predecessor, Judy Baar Topinka, who I really truly believe is smiling down upon me today,” Mendoza said after taking the oath. “Judy was a Republican and I was a Democrat and that never, ever mattered to our friendship and it never mattered to her as she prioritized the people and institutions … most in need of … payments,” Mendoza said of the job, which will have her writing the checks to pay the state’s bills. There were $10.4 billion in unpaid bills as of Monday.

“I will use the full power of my office to prevent Illinois’ hospitals, group homes, rape crisis centers and universities from going under,” Mendoza added.

Mendoza was in the Illinois House for 10 years before becoming in 2011 Chicago’s city clerk — the post she held when she won the November election for comptroller. While the comptroller writes checks, it is up to the legislature, now controlled by Democrats, and the governor to agree to a budget. The state is operating on a stopgap budget that expires at the end of the year, and Rauner and legislative leaders have been meeting to seek a full budget. Rauner has said new revenue is needed, but he will not agree to it without pro-business and government reform items from his turnaround agenda, and no full budget has been passed since he took office in 2015.

Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks with members of the media Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, following his visit to Carbondale High School's Rebound program. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks with members of the media Friday, Aug. 26, 2016, following his visit to Carbondale High School’s Rebound program. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Given the bill-paying backlog, Munger had put state lawmakers in line with others to be paid, delaying their checks. Six state representatives — none from the Springfield area — filed a lawsuit last week saying it is unconstitutional to block lawmaker pay midterm. Lawmakers have only been paid for their time on the job through May. Mendoza said she’s not changing Munger’s policy on lawmaker payments.

“I hope my former colleagues in the legislature will understand my decision to continue to prioritize the most vulnerable people in our state over payments to legislators, unless a court instructs me to do otherwise,” Mendoza said. “I, too, will be putting my paycheck in the same queue as everybody else’s, because in these times of fiscal crisis, these must be times of shared sacrifice, and we must prioritize the most vulnerable first.”

The comptroller’s salary is $135,669 annually.

Though she doesn’t have the power to pass a budget, Mendoza said, “I’m not going to be somebody who sits behind my desk all day. … I think I have a voice to lend to the discussion and the debate.”

Court orders and consent decrees direct about 90 percent of state spending now, she said, but “in areas where I can prioritize, I will be doing that.”

During her speech, Mendoza also referred to veto session action last week — when there was no budget passed, but there was a bill designed in part to keep two nuclear plants operating, and Rauner vetoed more than $200 million in pension money for Chicago Public Schools. The governor said his approval of that money was contingent on passage by the legislature of a promised general government pension overhaul which has not yet occurred.

“As I said during my campaign, I am here to be that independent, truth-telling fiscal watchdog that will prioritize … both the state’s fiscal and moral health,” Mendoza said. “If anyone from the governor on down tells you we can afford to bail out the big power companies but we have to bail on Illinois’ school children, I’ll be here to call their bluff.”

Mendoza got choked up and paused at times during her speech, including when she talked of her husband’s support for her — no matter what she decided — as she took on the run for comptroller, and when she spoke of being able to lead career workers in the comptroller’s office who “just care about the people of the state.”

The backlog of bills, Mendoza said in her speech, are “not numbers on a spreadsheet. They’re stories of people’s lives, and of how people are hurting in this state. It’s going to be my greatest honor to do what I can to try to serve them in the best and most honorable way possible. … We’re going to get out of this and we’re going to do it together, and Illinois will see brighter days ahead.”

State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, who was among people in the rotunda to witness the swearing-in, said he knows and has confidence in Mendoza.

“She is honest,” Manar said. “She is trustworthy. She is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen take on public service… One thing we can be sure of is she’s not going to be shy to speak her mind and to speak to truth. And I think that’s why she got elected.”

Lance Trover, spokesman for Gov. Bruce Rauner, linked Mendoza to House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, when commenting on her opinion that turnaround agenda items are not linked to the budget.

“These Madigan-Mendoza talking points are tired,” Trover said. “We need term limits, lower property taxes, better schools — all are core to achieving a truly balanced budget that makes Illinois both competitive and compassionate.”

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