Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Has a perennial idea’s time come?

It has been a decade since I was one of the reporter-type regulars at the Illinois Statehouse, yet I can remember one of the perennial ideas people would latch onto if they wanted to gain some public attention for themselves was the concept of merging the state comptroller and Illinois treasurer into one single office.

To show how most political people didn’t take the idea too seriously, my lasting memory was of then-state Rep. Cal Skinner, a Republican from the Crystal Lake area, wisecracking that having a chief financial officer would mean Illinois would have a “chief f.o.,” a dull remark for which he actually got laughs from his colleagues.

BUT NOW, IT seems that Republicans are hoping to make this issue something a little more real. Their nominees for treasurer – state Sen. Dan Rutherford of Pontiac – and comptroller – former state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka – both said recently they would work together to ensure that one of their political positions no longer exists.

In an attempt to undermine the ability of Topinka and Rutherford to turn this perennial political issue into something of significance, Topinka’s Democratic opponent, state Rep. David Miller of Lynwood, said he is willing to back the idea.

Even Democratic treasurer nominee Robin Kelly says she could back the idea, saying, “leaders must pursue every avenue to save money,” and also claiming she had the idea first.

How can Topinka use this issue to bash Miller (or Rutherford to attack Kelly) if, theoretically, they support the same stance? In political-speak, Miller’s action “takes the issue off the table” as a campaign matter.

NOT THAT I expect this will cause Topinka to shut up about it. She wants to be able to use this issue, which on the surface sounds like something so incredibly obvious that we wonder why the drafters of the Illinois Constitution didn’t just do it that way when they put the current document together back in 1970.

Oddly enough, it was Illinois’ long-standing history of potential for political corruption (people like Rod Blagojevich are petty compared to Paul Powell or Orville Hodge) that made the good-government types who were part of the Constitutional Convention insist that there be two separate people of equal authority as state constitutional officers who have a say in state finances.

In theory, either one of them could “rat out” the other if something fishy were taking place. And neither one has complete financial authority, meaning that one’s ability to enrich themselves with some sort of scheme would be limited.

For the record, the state treasurer’s office is the one that oversees Illinois government’s financial investments. That person does whatever possible to try to make the state more money.

THE STATE COMPTROLLER’S office has no say over those investments, but has control of the state’s checkbook – so to speak. That person’s staff handles the actual payment of bills, and they are the ones who have to decide when there is a financial shortfall such as we are experiencing these days who gets paid late, and who gets paid ridiculously late.

So is it irresponsible to put all this financial responsibility into the hands of one official. The Topinka/Rutherford financial monster says that modern technology would make it easier for other people to track finances and serve as a watchdog, should a chief financial officer decide to try something funky.

Oddly enough, Miller and the Topinka/Rutherford two-headed beast are trying to spin the issue differently.

Miller wants to talk about government ethics, saying a streamlined government would be easier to monitor for ethical flaws.

FOR TOPINKA/RUTHERFORD, THEY want to cite cost-savings Twelve million dollars is the cost they estimate would be saved by turning two constitutional offices into one.

There’s just one problem. This isn’t something that a governor can just enact through executive order, or even the General Assembly pass into law by a mere majority.

This is a part of the Illinois Constitution, just like those provisions related to redistricting that wind up resolving the issue of control of the process by a purely-random lottery (which was another good-government idea that was supposed to encourage compromise because political people would supposedly fear a random draw and the possibility of getting nothing).

Which makes it easy for anyone to say they favor this idea now, because it doesn’t mean their job would suddenly disappear after Election Day.

WE’RE TALKING CONSTITUTIONAL amendment, which is deliberately a difficult (if almost impossible) process to navigate.

Sixty percent of the Legislature has to agree on the issue, then it would have to go on the ballot for voter approval. And there are restrictions for how many amendments can be on any given ballot, which means the powers that be could always decide to crowd up the ballot with other issues so as to squeeze this one off altogether.

Even if citizens concerned enough about the issue were to try to go the other route to pass petitions to force the issue on the ballot, there are restrictions on what kinds of issues can be addressed by that route. Illinois’ courts have historically shown a willingness to knock down just about anything that anyone tries to push for an amendment through that route.

My point being, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon – if ever – no matter who wins those particular campaigns come Nov. 2.


No comments: