Herald-Whig View

Munger has proved she's right for comptroller job

Posted: Oct. 7, 2016 10:40 am

ILLINOIS COMPTROLLER Leslie Munger has been an effective watchdog of state finances and a consistent voice for fiscal responsibility since being appointed to the position in 2015 after the sudden death of Judy Barr Topinka, and has earned our endorsement for election as the state's chief fiscal officer.

Under ordinary circumstances, the comptroller would not be a high-profile race. The office is primarily an accounting, tracking and disbursement operation that normally generates few headlines. However, these are not ordinary times in Illinois, and this is not an ordinary election.

The state was forced to operate without a budget for fiscal year 2016 and has only a stopgap spending plan in place to get it through the end of this calendar year. Illinois owes $8.5 billion in unpaid bills, a figure that is expected to increase to $10 billion by the end of the year, and its unfunded pension liability stands at $115 billion and counting.

Adding to the unusual intrigue is that the race featuring Munger, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Susana Mendoza has been described as a proxy fight between Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan, with millions expected to be spent between now and Election Day.

Rauner appointed Munger, a former corporate executive for Helene Curtis/Unilever, to replace Topinka, who died about a month after being re-elected to a second term.

The appointment normally would have been for four years, but lawmakers insisted that it instead be for just two years, prompting this election. Mendoza, a former state legislator and current Chicago city clerk, was then recruited to the race by Madigan.

Against that backdrop, Munger has demonstrated that she can be an effective officeholder and champion for sound financial policies.

Munger, who earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois and an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Business at Northwestern, has spent much of her time in office using her business background and bully pulpit to issue dire warnings about the state's financial condition and urge change.

She would like to see a constitutional solution to help fix Illinois' pension problem, which is costing the state $8.5 billion in payments this year.

She also would prefer changes in the state's procurement system. She points out that because the state has not changed the way it does business, it adds between $400 million and $500 million to its deficit each month.

Like Topinka before her, Munger has worked to streamline operations in her office, reducing expenditures by 10 percent to return about $1 million to state coffers. She also is continuing efforts to configure more than 260 state computer systems used by the state to improve communication and coordination between offices and cut costs.

Moreover, with social service organizations, vendors and schools waiting months for promised payments from the state, Munger took the extraordinary steps earlier this year to put elected leaders in line to be paid, including herself, until a budget agreement was reached.

She said salaries for the state's six constitutional officers and 177 legislators total about $1.3 million a month, or $15.6 million annually. They normally are paid on the final day of the month, but, like others who rely on the state, must wait until cash is available to be compensated.

Mendoza grew up in Chicago and attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., on soccer and academic scholarships, earning a bachelor's degree in business administration. She became the youngest member of the Illinois General Assembly when she was elected to the House at age 26 in 2001.

She represented the 1st District until she was elected city clerk of Chicago in 2011. She was viewed as an able legislator and re-elected as city clerk last year.

However, she has been criticized for earning two pensions as she simultaneously served as a project coordinator for Chicago's planning department and as an elected Illinois representative. Her close ties to Madigan also give pause.

The role of the comptroller has taken on more prominence during the state's budget stalemate because the office gets to prioritize who gets paid and who has to wait.

Munger has earned the trust and confidence to serve in that capacity for another two years.