Illinois Comptroller – Succession – Special Session is Unconstitutional and Expensive

Illinois Comptroller – Succession – Special Session is Unconstitutional and Expensive
•    Governor Quinn calls special session; Constitution stands in way.  Some advocate creating a special election to add the office of Comptroller, on a one-time-only basis, to the presidential ballot that Illinoisans will vote on in November 2016.  Retiring Gov. Quinn has called a special session of the General Assembly to consider legislative measures to provide for an off-term election for the office of State Comptroller.  The General Assembly has been directed to meet in Springfield on Thursday, January 8. This special session will cost taxpayers roughly $46,000 and could be avoided entirely by waiting to address the prospect of a special election in the upcoming 99th General Assembly.

Another major hurtle however, is that the Constitution of Illinois does not currently provide for an off-term special election.  Section 2 of Article V of the Constitution provides explicitly that the Comptroller and the other statewide elected officials shall be elected at the general election in 1978 and every four years thereafter.  Section 3 of the Constitution’s transition schedule, approved by the voters in that year, moved the election dates for Statewide elected officials, including the Comptroller, from presidential election years to midterm election years to prevent national issues from overshadowing state issues.  The change became effective in 1976-1978 and was the only time in the history of the current Constitution that statewide officials have been elected to a two-year term.      

Furthermore, creating a special election without amending the constitution will be challenged in court as unconstitutional. If the General Assembly were to pass a state law that creates a special election for the Comptroller in 2016, that law would violate the express terms of Section 2 in both the length of the term of office and the date of elections every four years after 1978. It would also violate the powers granted the legislature in the constitution. Section 7, Article 5 of the constitution dealing with vacancies does not authorize the General Assembly to order a special election to fill a vacancy or replace a person who is appointed to fill a vacancy.  Rather, it says that the Governor “shall fill the office by appointment.” If the legislature wants to change that procedure, it should pass a constitutional amendment and ask the voters for approval in 2016.  Such action would provide a clear method for filling vacancies in the future. 

Although the retiring Governor has called upon Illinois lawmakers to assemble to pass a legislative bill to enact a special election, constitutional language and precedent does not allow them to do what he is asking them to do. The Constitution directs incoming Gov. Bruce Rauner to appoint a new Comptroller to serve a four-year term ending in January 2019, and Rauner is preparing to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities.          

Illinois Comptroller – Succession
•    Quinn appoints Stermer Comptroller; Rauner to appoint for full term.  The incumbent and recently-reelected Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka passed away on Wednesday, December 10.   A legal consensus calls for her office to be refilled in stages.  In the first stage, urgently required to carry on essential State cash flow business, departing Gov. Pat Quinn named longtime aide Jerry Stermer as temporary Comptroller on Friday, December 19 to serve the remaining days of Topinka’s first term.  Stermer will voluntarily step down as Comptroller on January 12, 2015.

The second stage of replacing Topinka will cover the four-year term for which she was elected in November 2014, starting on January 12, 2015 (the inauguration day for Illinois statewide elected officials).  The Constitution has given Governor-elect Bruce Rauner the right to make an appointment during this four-year period.  The newly-appointed Comptroller will have the heavy responsibility of supervising the State’s money during a time of unprecedented demands on the cash flow of the State.  Topinka revealed, before her death, that the State’s total of unpaid bills had climbed above $6 billion (Monthly Money Matters).

Constitution of Illinois
•    Proposal to merge statewide offices, save money.  The Topinka succession situation has renewed interest in longtime proposals to reduce the size of Illinois state government by merging the two offices of Comptroller and Treasurer.  Under the Constitution, Illinois has two elected statewide fiscal officers.  The Comptroller specializes in cash flow, the Treasurer specializes in cash management, and the two officials monitor each other.  Changes in the terms of office, or the work responsibilities, of these officers will require the General Assembly to approve a constitutional amendment and approval of this amendment by the people. 

In the 98th General Assembly, many proposals were made to merge these two offices.  Modern business practices have tended to commingle the formerly separate functions of cash flow and cash management, and greater adherence to accounting standards is reducing the necessity for two separate sets of eyes to look at the same financial books.  Proposals to merge the Comptroller and the Treasurer into a single statewide elected office, that of the Comptroller of the Treasury, were made by lawmakers such as House Republican Adam Brown in HJRCA 44.  The changing political status of these offices in the wake of the 2014 general election, and Comptroller Topinka’s death, may change the way Springfield lawmakers look at proposals like these in the near future.

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