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Article updated: 2/13/2014 6:30 PM

State treasurer candidates debate ‘extreme approach’ to balance budget

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Should the people of Illinois sue Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly to force passage of a balanced budget for the first time in 10 years?

One Illinois treasurer candidate, state Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego, considers it a viable option. His opponent, DuPage County Auditor Bob Grogan of Downers Grove, calls the idea "ludicrous."

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It's one issue where the two treasurer candidates differ as they prepare to face off in the Republican primary election March 18.

The winner will take on Democratic State Sen. Mike Frerichs, of Champaign, who's running unopposed in the primary.

Cross, a former Illinois House Minority Leader and Kane County prosecutor, says by repeatedly ignoring a constitutional law mandating they can't spend more than projected revenue, legislators are sinking the state deeper into debt. Last year alone, the unbalanced budget cost the state $300 million in late fees and penalties, he said.

Cross, who prides himself on being aggressive on financial issues, said he's done the legal research and believes a lawsuit could force legislators to "stop playing games."

"Is it extreme? Yeah. But Illinois has $8 billion in unpaid bills," Cross said during an interview with the Daily Herald editorial board. "I'm angry at the (financial) condition of the state ... and I will find a way to balance the budget. It's an extreme problem, and I think it takes an extreme approach."

Grogan, an accountant and certified fraud examiner, says it's not the treasurer's job to file lawsuits.

"It's a ludicrous idea. Filing a lawsuit is not how you get things done," Grogan said. "It's not a solution, it's a cop out. Who's gonna lose? The taxpayers. And the lawyers are going to win."

Grogan says the treasurer's job is to manage the state's investments and financial programs, such as I-CASH and Bright Start savings funds. To balance the budget, he says, would require electing "better people and a good governor."

"The treasurer's job is not to do deals. The treasurer's office is about money. The treasurer's job is to do the treasurer's job better," Grogan said.

Cross said if the state can't balance the budget, it'll prevent an economic recovery.

"We don't need to be in the condition we're in," he said. "It could have been avoided. And it also can be repaired. It can be fixed."

Both candidates support the idea to combine the treasurer's office with the Illinois comptroller's office, saying it could save taxpayers millions of dollars.

Even though elected state officials have agreed for more than a decade that the office merger would save money, it never happens.

Cross said he "filed the paperwork" to combine the offices roughly seven years ago, but couldn't get Democratic House Majority Leader Mike Madigan to bring it to the vote.

"The efforts have been there," said Cross, blaming Madigan's tight control over the legislature.

Grogan questioned Cross's interest in becoming treasurer, given that he's a lawyer while Grogan is an accountant.

"Money is my thing," Grogan said. "There's a nasty habit of using the treasurer's office to do other things. I mean, Pat Quinn was a treasurer. It's either a consolation prize or a steppingstone for other things."

Cross, however, says he wants to be treasurer to bring transparency, awareness and financial action to the state.

"We need to do whatever we can to turn this state around," Cross said. "A lot of people say the role of the treasurer is to watch the money. But if we're not careful ... there's not going to be any money to watch."

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