Why The Illinois Comptroller Race Deserves Extra Attention This Year
State comptroller candidate Susana Mendoza tells voters in a campaign ad she is “running for the most important office you’ve never heard of.”
In the commercial, the Democratic candidate asks voters if they know what the comptroller does. Spoiler alert: They do not
VOTER 1: What’s that?
VOTER 2: Comp-troller?
VOTER 3: Say what?
MENDOZA: Do you know what the Comptroller does?
VOTER 4: Uh, controls stuff?
Yeah, not really. The comptroller essentially pays the state’s bills and keeps the books. That’s mostly it. (OK, the comptroller also helps local governments with accounting and regulates some private cemeteries.)
That’s pretty limited, but it’s actually an important job this year because of the state budget impasse.
Before getting into the details, it’s worth taking a look at the candidates -- Mendoza, the city clerk of Chicago, and Republican incumbent Leslie Munger, a former executive at a cosmetics company -- and their remarkably similar campaign positions
Candidates make similar promises…
In their ads, Mendoza and Munger both claim they’ll hold politicians accountable by holding up their paychecks. The second beat of Mendoza’s ad shows her telling an older voter over coffee, “The comptroller can make sure that the politicians in Springfield are the last to get paid when they don’t pass a budget.”
“You can do that?” the voter asks, incredulous and impressed.
“I can, and I will,” Mendoza promises.
That is something Munger did last summer. She points it out in her big ad, which opens with a shot of Munger behind a desk, signing papers.
“Meet Leslie Munger,” says an announcer. “Businesswoman, outsider. When the politicians in Springfield couldn’t pass a budget, she told them no budget, no pay.”
“Yep,” Munger says, looking up from her work. “That’s right.”
… And similar attacks
The candidates also attack each other on essentially identical grounds: Each paints the other as a tool of a widely disliked political leader.
During a recent debate on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight,” Mendoza attacked Munger as a tool of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“Frankly, it’s Gov. Rauner who’s running this office,” Mendoza said. “(Munger) just accepted, from the person she’s supposed to be a checks and balance to, last week, a check for $1 million!”
Munger hit back by pointing out Mendoza’s ties to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.
“My opponent has actually received plenty of money from special interests, including … money from companies she’s given out contracts to, and money from Speaker Madigan himself,” Munger said.
In fact, the conventional wisdom about the election says it is a proxy war between Madigan and Rauner -- between Democrats and Republicans generally.
The data bears out this view:
“You have all these millions of dollars battling it out to see who’s going to get bragging rights,” says Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois who runs the school’s Institute for Governmental and Public Affairs. “Whoever wins, that party will claim it’s a mandate for their approach to the budget crisis.”
And those last two words, “budget crisis,” are why Mooney says -- notwithstanding the job’s obscurity, the similarities in the candidates’ pitches and the political proxy battle -- the comptroller’s job is really, substantively important right now.
Why it matters: With no budget, the comptroller’s job gets very tricky
“Because we are in the middle of this unprecedented budget crisis -- where it does matter, on a given day, who gets paid, and who doesn’t get paid, and how much we have in the bank -- this office matters,” Mooney says.
Without a balanced budget, the state of Illinois is piling up obligations much faster than it is taking money in.
Figures from Munger’s office show that -- just since the end of June -- the state has fallen an additional $1.5 billion into the hole.
That’s not cash we’ve borrowed. It’s money the state has promised vendors, like contractors who feed prisoners, clinics that serve Medicaid patients and social service providers running domestic violence shelters.
As we’ve fallen further in the hole, it’s taking the state longer and longer to actually pay them.
And it’s the comptroller’s job to figure out who to pay when -- and how.
How do does the state scrape together $320 million to make a legally-required payment to the teacher-pension fund? A spreadsheet from Munger’s office shows she scrimped on other payments for a week to do that in August.
It shows her pinching pennies to make payments to school districts statewide. And making emergency payments to non-profits the state owes money so they can make payroll.
So, the office matters right now because these decisions have immediate impact.
Getting it wrong could be costly
The comptroller’s office also matters right now for big-picture reasons: The bond markets are watching extra-close to see how the state handles money.
“If cash pressures escalate, the markets are going to get more nervous, about whether there's a dollar-too-few here to to pay the bills,” says Richard Ciccarone, CEO of Merritt Research Services.
Investors in government bonds -- the people who loan the state money -- pay attention to his findings.
Even though Illinois has the worst credit rating of any state, that hasn’t prompted big hikes in what the state pays to borrow money.
However, Ciccarone says, that could change.
“Those market players -- if they don't like what they see -- you're going to see borrowing rates go up,” he says. “And that certainly isn't helpful for the taxpayer.”
A possible silver lining
Whichever candidate wins the election -- no matter who her political patron is -- will have a built-in incentive to do a decent job, which is also a political incentive.
“We assume they’re going to run for re-election, that they want to present themselves as a competent, independent actor,” says Kent Redfield, a retired political science professor from the University of Illinois at Springfield.
This is a special election, so the winner will face voters again in just two years.
“Anything that the public interprets to mean that people are more concerned with scoring political points than solving problems, just increases public cynicism,” he says.
In other words, if the winner acts like a party hack, voters will remember at election time -- and they might not like it.