CHICAGO - The Illinois General Assembly voted Thursday to set a special election in 2016 to fill the final two years of the late Judy Baar Topinka's upcoming term as comptroller, a move attacked by Republicans as a political jab at incoming Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner.
The leaders of the Democratic majorities pushed through the measure at a special session called by outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn, who supports a special election to fill out the new term of Topinka, who died suddenly in December. Topinka had won a second term as comptroller in November. Quinn is expected to sign the legislation before leaving office Monday.
“This legislation keeps the power to choose statewide elected officials where it belongs with the people," Quinn said in a statement after the final vote.
The legislation would require a special election for most constitutional offices, including the secretary of state and attorney general, when a vacancy or "failure to qualify" occurs with more than 28 months remaining in a term. The election would occur at the next regularly scheduled election.
The General Assembly's party-line vote comes ahead of the new Republican governor's swearing in Monday. Many believe the debate is a harbinger of the tussles that lie ahead between Democratic leaders, who enjoy a veto-proof majority, and the new Rauner administration.
The Senate approved the measure first in a 35-15 vote. The House followed in a 66-to-40 vote.
"This bill has to do with succession," the House sponsor, Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Curie, D-Chicago, said in response to Republican attacks over its timing. "It is about the right of the people to select their leaders it sets a procedure in place anytime there is a vacancy of 28 months or more."
Similar rules apply to vacancies in the General Assembly, she added.
Republicans attacked Democrats' motives, accusing them of making a political power play to strip the new governor of his right under current law to allow his appointee to fill out the term. They questioned the rushed manner, suggesting the issue should instead be the subject of a constitutional amendment ballot question.
They also raised the specter of how the move would impact future cooperation as the state faces daunting budgetary, taxation, and pension woes with its credit rating - already the lowest among states -- threatened with further deterioration. A $5 billion deficit and $20 billion backlog looms in the coming years due to an income tax rate rollback. The legality of the 2013 pension reforms is pending before the state high court.
"This is a heck of a bad start," said Republican Rep. Dwight Kay.
"We clearly have a divided chamber on this," said state House minority leader Jim Durkin, calling the legislation a "power grab in the 11th hour of a lame duck session." Divided government means cooperation is needed, he said. "Today sets a tone which is contrary to that."
Democrats countered that a delay in the vote until after the new term begins could raise legal questions over whether Rauner's appointment would then enjoy a "property right" to the office.
Rauner earlier this week named businesswoman Leslie Geissler Munger to serve Topinka's upcoming term. Quinn last month named his top budget officer Jerry Stermer to serve out the remaining days of Topinka's current term.
Munger said in published interviews this week she would abide by any action of the General Assembly and would seek election in 2016.
Lawmakers also discussed in committee efforts to merge the treasurer and comptroller's offices, which would require a constitutional amendment, but any vote on that issue is down the line. Rauner supports such a move and Topinka advocated for the consolidation before her death last month after suffering a stroke.
The state's budgeting process and debt management are in the hands of the governor's administration, but the comptroller's voice carries weight on state finances, ratings, and policies. The comptroller pays the state's bills and payroll and maintains state and local fiscal records.
The office publishes monthly and quarterly reports on the state's fiscal condition and its reports on the size of the bill backlog are closely followed by analysts and investors as a sign of the state's liquidity position.
A legal challenge is still expected. The state constitution says that if constitutional officers fail to "qualify or if his office becomes vacant, the Governor shall fill the office by appointment. The appointee shall hold office until the elected officer qualifies or until a successor is elected and qualified as may be provided by law and shall not be subject to removal by the governor."
In her review of the law, Attorney General Lisa Madigan said Quinn held the right to appoint someone to fill out the waning days of the term and then Rauner held the power to name someone to serve the next full term.
She recommended lawmakers approve legislation changing that rule and allowing for a special election, which she said is permitted under state law under special circumstances.