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State Government

Will County-area lawmakers divided on special comptroller election

SPRINGFIELD – Local lawmakers were split along party lines on legislation approved Thursday requiring a special election in 2016 to replace the late Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.

Some local lawmakers, including newly sworn-in State Rep. Margo McDermed, R-Mokena, questioned the timing of the bill’s passage. The legislation passed both the Illinois House and Senate down party lines, but not before heated debate.

Many Republican lawmakers argued Democrats were attempting to strip power from incoming Gov. Bruce Rauner and that the special election in 2016 is a political move designed to help Democrats secure the position.

“Why have a special election when we’ve never needed to do this before? Why do it now, as a Democratic governor is on his way out? Suddenly, it becomes an emergency,” McDermed said. “There was no reason for doing this last-minute.”

Topinka died last month after complications from a stroke, just weeks after winning a second four-year term. Rauner has said he’s opposed to the idea of a special election. But the person he recently appointed – Joliet native Leslie Munger – said she doesn’t mind at all.

Munger, who lost in November to Democratic state Rep. Carol Sente for a seat in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, said “assuming she’s in good standing,” she plans to run for comptroller in 2016.

“I’ve got big shoes to fill. I look at this as I’ve got a very big job to do,” Munger said. “I’m going to focus on doing a great job, and I’m going to hit the ground running. I’m not worried about 2016 right now.”

Rep. John Anthony, R-Plainfield, said in a statement that a special election goes against the state’s constitution, which provides that “elected officers of the Executive Branch shall hold office for four years and be elected in nonpresidential years.”

“The Illinois Constitution is pretty clear,” Anthony said in the statement. “There’s a vacancy coming on Jan. 12 and Gov.-elect Rauner has the authority to fill that vacancy. The term of a comptroller, as well as all executive branch officers, is set for four years.”

The legislation would apply to other vacancies that might occur in statewide constitutional offices going forward, except the governor’s office.

Rep. Natalie Manley, D-Joliet, said the special election is about “letting the voters decide.”

“Honestly, and it has nothing to do with a Republican governor getting to decide, it’s about giving the people a chance to decide. I always air on the side of letting people decide,” Manley said.

The Illinois Senate approved the measure by a 37-15 vote. The Illinois House approved the measure 66-40.

Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., D-Elwood, Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Plainfield, and Manley all voted yes. McDermed voted no, while Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, and Anthony were out of state and did not vote.

A second piece of legislation related to the comptroller’s office didn’t move Thursday, but was discussed, involved the merging of the comptroller and treasurer’s offices. Before her death, Topinka often talked about how such a move would save the state money.

The comptroller’s office was created in the wake of a 1950s scandal, in which then-Auditor of Public Accounts Orville Hodge embezzled more than $6 million from the state.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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