SPRINGFIELD — Expect to see candidates for Illinois comptroller on the 2016 general election ballot.
Republicans called it a power grab, thievery and last-minute shenanigans, but General Assembly Democrats on Thursday passed a measure changing how long-term vacancies in statewide elected office are filled.
As a result, Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner’s appointee may be looking at a two-year term.
The legislation applies not only to the office of comptroller, but also to those of treasurer, secretary of state and the attorney general.
Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to sign the bill before he leaves office on Monday, Jan. 12, when Rauner will be sworn in.
The combination of Rauner’s win — ending Democrats’ single-party rule in the Statehouse — and the death of election-winning Republican incumbent Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka brought the matter to a boil.
While Democrats conceded Rauner has the right to appoint his choice for comptroller, they chafed at a full, four-year term for an appointee.
Democrats said voters, not parties or lawmakers, should decide who should serve in statewide officers for a full term.
“I submit democratic institutions are never — never — weakened by increased participation of the people they serve,” state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, said.
In both chambers, Republicans argued their opponents were ignoring voters’ calls for divided governance and shared responsibility, which they say was shown by the choice of a Republican governor.
“Pure and simple, at the 11th hour, bingo, you’re going to stick it to him,” said Rep. Dwight Kay, R- Glen Carbon.
“I think this a shameful way to finish up a lame-duck session,” said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs.
Rauner’s staff issued a statement saying he “believed the best outcome for Illinoisans was for the Comptroller appointment to be for the full term to which Judy Baar Topinka was elected.”
House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, argued the 1970 constitution clearly anticipated the potential need for special elections and gave the General Assembly the right to adjust the law.
“The language is clear. We (legislators) have the authority,” she said. “That’s what’s constitutional. We may do that. And I believe we shall.”
Countered Rep. David Reis, R-Willow Hill: “You’re doing this because you can.”
Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, said Democrats were attempting a “second bite of the partisan apple” after having lost the comptroller’s race.
“Passage of this bill today, I think, is really sort of a naked power play,” she said.
Senate President John Cullerton disagreed. The change applies not only to the current vacancy, but any long-term vacancy.
“It’s not about a naked power play,” he said. “Who knows what’s going to happen in 2016?”
Republicans said they expect the measure to be challenged in the courts.
Short-term Quinn appointee Jerry Stermer is currently serving as comptroller. Rauner has said he will appoint Leslie Munger, R-Lincolnshire, to the office on Monday.
Measures to merge the comptroller’s and treasurer’s offices, at a projected savings of $12 million to $13 million, got nowhere on Thursday, although lawmakers in both parties and the governor-elect say the support the idea.
Mark Fitton is a reporter for the Illinois News Network.