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Editorials: Save Illinois taxpayers money by merging comptroller, treasurer offices

Updated: February 24, 2012 8:05AM



Illinois has far too many units of government — almost 7,000 — but just try to save money by merging a few and you’ll run into a hornet’s nest of officials trying to save their jobs.

As a result, taxpayers dig deep into their pockets every year to pay for redundant services and parallel bureaucracies. It’s a waste of money in good years and simply indefensible in times such as now when government needs to be as efficient as possible.

But Illinois does have a chance to consolidate two elective statewide offices that are occupied by incumbents who thoroughly support the idea. Springfield should seize the moment.

The offices are those of state comptroller and state treasurer. The central responsibilities of those offices — investing the state’s money and paying the bills — could easily be managed by just one.

The incumbents, Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and Treasurer Dan Rutherford, say merging the offices could save $12 million a year by eliminating duplication. Topinka has held both jobs.

Earlier this year, legislation that would have paved the way for the merger was introduced in Springfield. It would have put the question to voters in a 2012 referendum. If the referendum passed, it would have created the new consolidated office of comptroller of the treasury starting in 2014. The legislation breezed through the Senate, but was blocked in the House by Speaker Michael Madigan.

The two separate offices were created by the 1970 Illinois Constitution in reaction to a 1950s scandal uncovered by the Chicago Daily News in which state Auditor Orville Hodge embezzled $6.15 million by altering and forging checks.

A spokesman said Madigan, a Democrat, believes the division of the offices, in which the treasurer invests the money and the comptroller writes the checks, remains a necessary precaution. Cynics might suggest that Madigan’s record indicates the only consolidation of power he’s ever shown interest in is his own.

Topinka and Rutherford, both Republicans, say advances in electronic accounting technology and the appointment of a state auditor general who keeps independent track of state finances provide sufficient protection.

This isn’t the only effort to consolidate in Illinois. Gov. Pat Quinn this year tried to get rid of regional school superintendents. Evanston aldermen recently decided to give voters the option of doing away with the local township government, whose duties could be handled by the city. Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey wants a binding referendum in November that would merge the Cook County recorder of deeds office with the county clerk, an idea we support. Downstate McLean County officials OKd such a referendum last week.

But if history is any guide, many good-government consolidation efforts will fail. Just this year, legislation to create a Local Government Consolidation Commission went nowhere in the General Assembly.

Madigan should let the idea of merging the state treasurer and comptroller offices move forward. Not only could it save taxpayers millions of dollars every year, it might encourage other needed consolidations.



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