ILLINOIS COMPTROLLER Judy Baar Topinka has transformed her agency into one of the few success stories in state government, earning our endorsement for re-election as the state's chief fiscal officer.
Under ordinary circumstances, the comptroller's office should function primarily as an accounting, tracking and disbursement operation. Illinois state government finances, however, are anything but ordinary.
When Topinka, a Republican from Riverside, took office four years ago, the state had a $13 billion funding shortfall in the general fund. As fiscal 2014 ended this summer, the shortfall was $7.3 billion. Due to the state's ongoing financial crisis, it has been impossible to fully catch up on payments to businesses and individuals who sell products or provide services to the state.
Topinka has made progress in spite of the problems. The payment cycle is down to three months, much better than delays that were as long as 12 months just a few years ago. In addition, not-for-profit agencies that are in dire financial condition due to delayed payments have a hotline number they can call to expedite payments.
In addition, Topinka has upgraded computer systems and converted the stamp-and-paper postal operations of the office to modern operations that rely heavily on direct deposit processes. Those changes allowed her to reduce staffing to 225 full-time employees, a record low for that office. As head count has gone down, the comptroller's office has returned an average of 11 percent of its budget to the state -- a total of $8.3 million so far.
A debt recovery program was introduced by Topinka, allowing the state to collect revenue owed to cities, counties and other participating units of government. Quincy is among the municipalities that participate in the program, which has collected more than $65 million in two years.
Units of government that are required to file financial reports to the comptroller's office have been prompted to complete their work or face fines. A list of chronically late government files has been reduced from 229 in 2011 to 20 this year.
Going forward, Topinka is seeking to configure more than 260 state computer systems used by the state so that communication and coordination between offices does not require data re-entry.
She has championed plans to combine the offices of comptroller and treasurer in a move that could save $12 million by eliminating duplication in those offices. The Illinois Legislature has not taken action on that proposal.
Topinka has a long history as an effective officeholder. She served three terms as Illinois treasurer after spending four years in the Illinois Senate and 10 years in the Illinois House.
During her time as treasurer, Topinka transformed the investment arm of the office toward greater speed in connecting with financial markets. She promoted the Bright Start program at a time when returns on the college education funding program were consistently good.
Sheila Simon, a Democrat from Carbondale, is challenging Topinka. Simon is the daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon. A lawyer and educator, Simon is completing her first term as Illinois lieutenant governor.
During her campaign for comptroller, Simon has pledged to be a fiscal watchdog, to make her office transparent and to monitor local governments more closely to fight corruption. The watchdog and transparency roles appear to be well-handled under the current officeholder, and the Illinois Constitution makes the attorney general and auditor general the primary corruption fighters.
Julie Fox of West Dundee is on the ballot as the Libertarian nominee, reprising her candidacy from 2010. Her face, name and goals remain unknown to most voters.
Topinka has a long record of achievement as a statewide elected official, and the office of comptroller is better for her time there. She has earned another four years.