Candidate debate

Candidate debate

There's no good reason not to merge the state treasurer and comptroller offices.

Champaign state Sen. Mike Frerichs, the Democratic Party nominee for state treasurer, faces Republican Tom Cross in the November election.

But in the meantime, he's having a vigorous debate with himself about a mostly dormant proposal to merge the treasurer and the comptroller offices.

He's for it one day, against it the next and for it the next. Frerichs' latest position, enunciated Tuesday in Springfield, is that he favors merger of the offices, a move that would save taxpayers an estimated $12 million.

"If we can get those strong internal controls and checks and balances, then yes, I think we should take action to save money for the people of the state of Illinois," he said.

But he gave a different answer a couple days earlier to Chicago radio station WBBM.

"People have said to me, 'Wouldn't it just be a lot more efficient if we just had one financial officer?' And I've said yes, we could become very efficient, efficient like the city of Dixon, Illinois, who just had one chief financial officer and she was able, from this small little town, over several years to take something like $52 million away from them."

Previous to those conflicting quotes, Frerichs was on record as favoring the merger, having voted in 2011 for a proposed constitutional amendment to put the question to the voters.

But he clearly doesn't know what he really thinks, and, when candidates don't know what they believe, they say whatever seems convenient at the moment.

Frankly, that's a surprise coming from Frerichs, who is Yale-educated, ambitious and capable.

The proposed merger of these two offices is not a complicated issue, but it does have a long history, one that dates back to — what else could it be in Illinois? — a sensational scandal that occurred in the late 1950s. That was when Orville Hodge, then the state's auditor of public accounts, was implicated in a $6 million embezzlement.

Hodge ultimately went to prison and Illinois, which adopted a new constitution in 1970, replaced Hodge's single office with two offices possessing divided responsibilities — comptroller and treasurer. The idea was that each office would act as a check on the other.

But technology has changed everything in the past 40-plus years, and there's oversight aplenty these days.

Hodge was able to abuse the system because he had the state's checkbook. Today, neither the treasurer nor comptroller has a checkbook, and each state check must be approved by multiple departments. Further, the Illinois auditor general's office routinely reviews the practices of both offices. Given that level of scrutiny, having both a comptroller and treasurer's office is not just an unaffordable luxury, but an unnecessary waste of taxpayer money.

Frerichs is certainly correct that strong oversight is necessary. But his invocation of the widely publicized Dixon embezzlement case where the town's comptroller and treasurer, Rita Crundwell, stole more than $50 million, is just silly.

The Dixon case is a shocking example of what can happen when there's no financial oversight. But contrary to Dixon, where controls were nonexistent, the oversight is and would remain strong in the treasurer and comptroller offices.

Illinois' energetic politicos have found plenty of ways to steal from the taxpayers, but writing checks to themselves, as Hodge did, is no longer a viable option.

The only real purpose the elective offices serve is to provide two posts, rather than one, for ambitious politicos to pursue.

That was reason enough in 2011 and 2012 for Speaker Michael Madigan to block an Illinois House vote on a proposed constitutional amendment after Frerichs and his fellow Senators voted unanimously to send the issue to the voters.

That said, plans to merge the two offices are going nowhere. Proposed constitutional amendments have been reintroduced in both the House and Senate, but they remain buried in committee.

The current treasurer and comptroller, Republicans Dan Rutherford and Judy Baar Topinka, say it's a money-saver that poses no threat to state finances.

Unfortunately, politics almost always trumps policy in Illinois. That's why there's plenty of money to waste in service of the state's political elite even as core state functions like education, transportation and law enforcement remain underfunded.

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