CHICAGO – The two candidates seeking the job of writing checks in a state notoriously behind in paying bills differ on a big issue hovering over the state comptroller's office –whether to eliminate it by merging it with the treasurer's office.
Republican incumbent Judy Baar Topinka said it's a no-brainer, since combining offices saves money, but her Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, said there are other ways to cut costs. The two explained their positions in an Associated Press candidate questionnaire focused on the matchup between the GOP veteran and the daughter of the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, which promises to be one of Illinois' most watched November contests.
The comptroller pays the bills, while the treasurer invests state money. Talk of joining the offices has percolated for years, but without generating enough support in the Legislature for the constitutional amendment that would be required. The debate breaks down between those who argue it'll make the cash-strapped government more efficient and those who believe the two offices maintain important checks and balances on power.
As evidence, the opponents point to the case of Orville Hodge, who in 1956 pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $1 million while he was state auditor, a precursor to the comptroller job, which was created in 1970.
Topinka, a former state treasurer, estimates a merger would save about $12 million annually. She also wants to eliminate the office of lieutenant governor.
"There are many difficult decisions facing our state and the General Assembly, but this is not one of them," Topinka wrote. "Consolidation of the state's fiscal offices is a common sense change that will improve efficiency, save on personnel and operations costs, and deliver the long-term benefit of more timely state investments."
Simon, who decided not to seek a second term as Gov. Pat Quinn's running mate, said that changing the constitution would be unnecessary if the two offices merely communicated better. She promised a quick review of costs if she is elected
"I will share the results of my review with the incoming treasurer to help find areas of redundancy between the two offices and attempt to save the state money," she wrote, noting that she's reduced her own office's budget by 30 percent.
The contest comes as Illinois has lowered its backlog of unpaid bills somewhat, but still owes billions of dollars to vendors and social service providers who perform some of the state's most important tasks.
Topinka said the state should keep its spending flat and use any savings to "chip away" at the bills. "The state of Illinois is similar to a household that has maxed out its credit cards and is drowning in debt," she wrote.
Simon believes Illinois should "continue to dedicate a significant payment to the bill backlog" with each budget, but that the process should be transparent.
Topinka, a former GOP state chairwoman who lost a gubernatorial bid to Rod Blagojevich in 2006, is seeking a second term. Over the years, she has had crossover appeal, particularly after supporting Illinois' new same-sex marriage law. Last week, the Illinois Federation of Teachers endorsed her, saying she "consistently demonstrates that doing what's right doesn't have a political party."
Simon, an attorney and former law professor at Southern Illinois University, focused part of her lieutenant governor tenure on higher education. In 2012, she visited each of Illinois' community colleges and public universities.
Political experts say beating Topinka will be difficult for Simon, who has little political experience aside from lieutenant governor. She served on the Carbondale City Council, but lost the city's mayoral race in 2007.
In an AP interview, she acknowledged the uphill battle against an incumbent. "Maybe I'm more longshot," she said.
But Simon's campaign has tried to paint Topinka as an old-style pol after questions were raised recently about what some allege was an attempt to use clout to get her son a university job.
The incident occurred when Topinka appeared with Quinn at a July 7 bill signing, caught on video and a microphone and first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. The footage shows Topinka engaging the governor in conversation, mentioning her son's teaching qualifications, repeating "SIU" and patting Quinn on the shoulder.
Simon's campaign deemed it a "clout request" to get Topinka's son a job. "It's an image of the worst of old politics in Illinois," Simon said.
But Topinka said she's a "proud mom" and was simply telling Quinn about her son.
"There was no 'request' made and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise," she said in a statement.