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posted: 1/20/2010 12:01 AM

Comptroller candidates vow fiscal responsibility

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  • Judy Baar Topinka

      Judy Baar Topinka

 
By Chase Castle

SPRINGFIELD - Few politicians would take responsibility for Illinois' current fiscal woes, but the list of candidates trying to oversee state spending is surprisingly robust.

The Illinois comptroller's office has three GOP candidates and three Democratic candidates facing off in next month's primary, in addition to an uncontested Green Party candidate.

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On Feb. 2, voters will narrow the ballot down to one representative per party in the race for comptroller, who "pre-audits" claims for state payments and ensures they're made in accordance with law. In essence, the comptroller is the official keeper of the state's checkbook, tasked with paying the bills from what money's available. Plus, governors who want to borrow money must get the comptroller's permission to do so.

The office also had been responsible for financial oversight of cemeteries. But in response to the recent burial scandals at Burr Oak Cemetery near Alsip, lawmakers approved tougher cemetery worker regulations and moved oversight to the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation. The governor recently signed that law into effect.

The job pays $135,669 and the comptroller's total budget is nearly $117 million. The office employees nearly 300.

There is no incumbent in the race as current Comptroller Dan Hynes is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

Republican candidates include Judy Baar Topinka, the former state treasurer and gubernatorial candidate, Jim Dodge, a marketing executive who serves both as an Orland Park village trustee and member of the Metra board of directors, and William Kelly, a Chicago television producer and former director of National Taxpayers United of Illinois.

In the Democratic pool for comptroller are Raja Krishnamoorthi, a former deputy treasurer and assistant attorney general, Wilmette's Clinton "Clint" Krislov, who works as a tax attorney, and David Miller, a dentist and current state representative from South suburban Lynwood.

The Green Party candidate for comptroller is Chicago's Erika Schafer, who is not being challenged in the primary.

Here's a look at the campaigns:

Republicans

Judy Baar Topinka

Before making a run for governor in 2006, Topinka had served in the treasurer's office since 1995.

Topinka, 65, said further fiscal discipline leads her goals for a term as comptroller, particularly because of the state's backlog of nearly $9 billion in unpaid bills and $80 billion in pension liabilities.

"The comptroller's office is perhaps the best venue to shine a light on this financial mismanagement and try to bring about some accountability," she said.

Topinka also stressed the need for more transparency, particularly regarding the state's work contracts. As comptroller, Topinka said she would like to post every state contract online, including more information about what's in those contracts.

"I believe the state can achieve significant savings by better scrutinizing state contracts," she said.

In terms of the contracting process itself, Topinka called for increased accountability among those involved in the bidding process.

"I would also like to see both the vendor and the supervisor responsible for each voucher provide a statement of work, which, if proven false, would result in serious penalties," she said.

Also, Topinka supports moving cemetery oversight to a different state agency, saying, "it has never been a very good fit" for the comptroller's office.

Jim Dodge

Dodge, 47, echoed the need for more disclosure of comptroller records.

Dodge also stressed the need to expedite the payment process, attributing backlogged state bills to "years of very poor political decision making." The comptroller's office should seek to make all payments in less than 60 days, prioritizing payments for small businesses and medical and social service agencies, he said.

"This is an imperfect plan, but large companies can better absorb 'floating the state a loan,' from late payments," said Dodge.

Dodge is the only Republican comptroller candidate who opposes merging the state financial offices of treasurer and comptroller, which would require a constitutional amendment.

Dodge also is the lone GOP candidate supporting leaving cemetery regulation with the comptroller's office - a duty that has been fallen under increased scrutiny. "It should stay ... but only if we have a clearer set of regulations," Dodge said.

William Kelly

Chicago resident Kelly, 43, said he would like the comptroller's office to create a Web site that would display the salaries of all state employees, individual consultants, expenditures, tax credits and more, all in the name of "true transparency."

"Politicians use these phrases all the time, but as someone with a history of anti-tax advocacy, I actually mean it," Kelly said.

Beyond updating the comptroller's Web site, Kelly said he will work directly with government watchdog groups and the media in order to spotlight corrupt business practices, problem contracts and reckless spending.

Kelly also said oversight of Illinois' cemeteries should remain under the comptroller's office, but would not rule out passing the duties onto an independent business.

Democrats

David Miller

As a dentist who frequently deals with insurance agencies and as a lawmaker who formerly chaired a House budgeting committee, Miller said his specialized knowledge would be invaluable in office.

"No other comptroller in Illinois history has had this diverse a background and relevant credentials," Miller said.

As comptroller, Miller said he would mandate reimbursements when lawmakers raid specialized state funds and use the money to cover spending in the state's general account.

"The result is twofold: The state ends up spending more money than it should, and vital programs could come up short-handed," said Miller, 47.

In order to give taxpayers and public officials a better grasp on their own finances, Miller also suggested building a Web site dedicated to tax increment financing or TIFs. TIF districts, which are meant to serve as an economic development tool, provide tax incentives to new developers willing to build in "blighted" areas. Miller said making the details of TIFs readily available would curb concerns about mismanagement and encourage responsible contracts.

The Cook County resident said he also would like to move more documents to electronic formats and create a more reliable payment schedule, with priority given to medical and social service agencies.

Raja Krishnamoorthi

Transparency and technology are the crux of Krishnamoorthi's campaign as the 36-year-old from Hoffman Estates targets the party nomination.

Krishnamoorthi said his priorities include putting all state contracts online in order to disclose the relationships between hired vendors and the state. He also aims to create a central clearinghouse online for all state purchasing opportunities so small businesses can more easily participate.

Publishing salaries for all state public officials online and encouraging legislation to prohibit salary increases in the absence of a balanced budget also are on Krishnamoorthi's priority list.

"I believe that elected officials in this state must demonstrate a willingness to make sacrifices," he said.

With a history as a deputy treasurer and assistant attorney general, Krishnamoorthi said he's already well versed in measures to clean up state government. Krishnamoorthi was born in India and grew up in Peoria, where his father taught at Bradley University.

Clinton Krislov

Krislov, 60, enters the primary with experience as a tax lawyer that he said gives him intimate familiarity with complex financial transactions.

Krislov said the state needs to close pension loopholes, which he said allow retirees to collect multiple pensions and artificially inflate the final years of employment in order to get bigger pensions. He also supports taxing retirement income, something Illinois currently does not do.

Although Krislov said he'd support a tax on retirement income, he opposes other tax increases, "until the system is reformed."

The Wilmette resident founded the Center for Open Government at Chicago Kent Law School.

"I have fearlessly stood up to the most powerful government and private interests, and believe that is what we need as comptroller," Krislov said. "Going up against the system is what I do."

Krislov, who represented families in the Burr Oak Cemetery case, said he might support moving cemetery oversight duties out of the comptroller's office.

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