Approved state checks limited after Topinka's death

  • Judy Baar Topinka, shown taking the oath of office for Illinois comptroller in 2011, was due to start a new term in January. She died unexpectedly Wednesday morning.

    Judy Baar Topinka, shown taking the oath of office for Illinois comptroller in 2011, was due to start a new term in January. She died unexpectedly Wednesday morning. Associated Press

 
and John O’Connor
Associated Press
 
Updated 12/11/2014 5:27 PM

SPRINGFIELD -- As state officials contemplate replacing late Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, the clock is running down for those dependent on the checks the office issues. There are a limited number of checks she approved before her death, raising the specter of a possible funding gap for schools and social service agencies should a successor not be chosen quickly.

Topinka, a moderate Republican from Riverside, died unexpectedly Wednesday from complications of a stroke, just weeks after the 70-year-old was re-elected to a second term.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Operations in the comptroller's office can continue as scheduled for "several" days, but a new official must be named to the post to approve future payments, spokesman Brad Hahn said.

Yet, the appointment is on hold as officials seek answers to the interpretation of Illinois' 1970 Constitution, which orders the governor to fill a vacancy "until a successor is elected and qualified." There are two terms to be filled -- the current one that ends in January and a four-year term that ends in 2019.

Some have suggested it means outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn may name a replacement to serve both terms, but two experts point out that accompanying language in the state law says, "the appointee shall hold his office during the remainder of the term, and until his successor is elected." Quinn could fill the post now, and GOP Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner would get his own pick on Jan. 12, Inauguration Day.

But with the state facing its first politically divided government for the first time in more than a decade, some lawmakers in the Democratic-run legislature have raised the possibility of an early January special session in to consider legislation that would set up a special election for the comptroller's seat.

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The constitutional situation is murky because of the state law's succession language, said Charles Wheeler III, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield who covered the 1970 constitutional convention.

The state Constitution carries the same succession language as its predecessors, documents penned in 1870 and 1848, according to Ann Lousin, a professor at John Marshall Law School who was a research assistant in 1970.

Delegates saw no reason to tinker with previous constitutional provisions that had worked, she said.

"Who thought this would happen? You can't cover every contingency," she said.

In an ideal political world, Quinn would confer with Rauner on a single pick, Wheeler said. But that's unlikely. According to records reviewed by The Associated Press, Illinois history has shown that a governor almost always chooses a member of his own party.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office said Thursday it continues to work on its constitutional interpretation.

And while Rauner is pushing for Quinn to appoint Nancy Kimme, Topinka's chief of staff and a member of Rauner's transition team, to the interim post, Quinn has said it is too early to discuss succession plans, noting "the constitution, constitutional debates and state law" would guide his decision-making process.

Meanwhile, Senate President John Cullerton's spokeswoman, Rikeesha Phelon, said discussions about a special session are on the table, but that it is "inconclusive as to whether that's necessary."

"There are certainly some concerns about having someone in a constitutional office for four years without voter approval," she said.

A spokesman for Cullerton's House counterpart, Michael Madigan, declined to address the possibility of a special session. The appointment decision, Steve Brown said, is "really an executive department matter."

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