Monday, February 14, 2011

Comptroller and treasurer backing a merger

By Jamey Dunn

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford and Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka are making good on a campaign proposal by pushing for the consolidation of their two offices.

Both constitutional officers are backing an amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would combining the two offices into one — headed by the so-called comptroller of the treasury. Currently the treasurer is responsible for the state’s investments while the comptroller handles day-to-day finances, such as paying the bills.

“What you have now are two incumbent constitutional officers that stand together to say we believe these two offices should be made into one.” Rutherford said of himself and Topinka at a Chicago news conference today. Topinka was not at the event because she was required to report for jury duty today.

Rutherford said the merger would save the state about $12 million annually. He said $4 million would result from reducing staffing levels and the lowered costs of consolidating physical facilities, such as renting less office space. He says about 50 staff positions of about 450 positions in both offices would be eliminated through the merger. Rutherford said $8 million in savings would come from better management of the state’s money and investments, which he says would occur if the offices were combined.

Rutherford said framers of the 1970 Illinois Constitution created separate offices to ensure a higher level of oversight and try to prevent any cooking of the books. Rutherford said that the presence of the auditor general, a position also created under the 1970 constitution, in addition to new computer technology that can make record keeping and auditing easier, guarantee a strong level of oversight.

Republicans and Democrats back the proposal. “I think even more than the savings it is the statement that is being made. You have two political officeholders essentially agreeing that they’re going to give up some power,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.

Corruption that occurred when there was a single financial officer in Illinois led to the creation of separate offices. One of the most notable of such cases is the story of former Gov. Lennington “Len” Small, who served as treasurer from 1905 to 1907 and again from 1917 to 1919. Small escaped a criminal conviction but was found liable by a civil court for more than $600,000 gained from graft while he was treasurer. According to the book The Illinois Governors: Mostly Good and Competent, after each of Small’s terms as treasurer laws were passed in attempts to reform practices in the office.

"Caesar had his Brutus, Jesus Christ had his Judas Iscariot, the United States had its Benedict Arnold and Jefferson Davis, and Illinois has Len Small. And if the Judas of Illinois had the courage of the Judas of Jesus, he would return the 30 pieces of silver, get a rope and hang himself, and remove the withering blight which will remain upon this state as long as he is Governor of Illinois,” Rep. J. Bert Miller said of Small when addressing the General Assembly according to a 1927 report from Time magazine.

The recent ethical track record of some of Illinois’ constitutional officers — former Secretary of State and Gov. George Ryan is currently serving prison time for a conviction on corruption charges, while former Gov. Rod Blagojevich will soon embark on another corruption trial after being convicted of a felony — may give some legislators pause when considering consolidation. The fact that lawmakers often make the jump to a constitutional office and sometimes use it as a springboard to another higher office may also factor into the decision to pare down the number. Rutherford and Topinka both served in the state legislature before their current positions. Topinka gave up her job as state treasurer to challenge Blagojevich for the governor’s office in 2006.

The concept of merging the offices is not new. However, supporters of the amendment say that the gaping budget deficit has brought a new focus on cutting government redundancy and finding savings whenever possible.

“I’ve sponsored this bill in the past. It’s passed the state Senate … and it’s been hung up in the House. … I’m confident this time we will make this change and save the state $12 million … and then have one-stop shopping for our state’s fiscal management,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican from Hinsdale.

Since the proposal is a constitutional amendment, it will require support of three fifths of members of both the House and the Senate. Voters would have to approve the plan on the 2012 ballot. If the proposal clears all the necessary thresholds to change the Constitution, voters would be selecting a comptroller of the treasury in 2014.

“One of thing I have noted during this heavy political campaign season is there are far too many commercials on TV, and at least if we consolidate theses two offices, we can reduce the number of political commercials,” Chicago Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul, the sponsor of the legislation, joked at a Chicago news conference. “It’s just a make-sense measure that I think should be able to garner bipartisan support.”

The amendment is scheduled for consideration in the Senate Executive Committee on Wednesday.

No comments: