Election 2018 candidate: Susana Mendoza, Comptroller

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Shaw Media sent questionnaires to statewide and Congressional candidates throughout the area ahead of the fall election.

Those questionnaires from each candidate who responded, as well as video of candidate interviews with our Editorial Board, are featured on our Election Central website to help readers make informed decisions when they cast their votes.

Name: Susana A. Mendoza

Age: 46

Town of residence: Chicago

Office sought: Comptroller

Party: Democratic

Website: http://www.susanamendoza.com

1. What will be your top legislative priorities during your term, and why?

We are putting together our legislative agenda for the 2019 legislative session. A good indication of the kinds of bills our office will introduce are the bills we have introduced in the past two sessions, starting with my landmark Debt Transparency Act.

The act requires state agencies to report to my office every month the amount of unpaid bills they are sitting on; whether any late payment interest penalties are owed on those bills, as well as on bills my office has paid; and whether they have sufficient appropriation authority from the Legislature to cover their expected bills for the fiscal year. Now, instead of legislators and taxpayers getting only a once-a-year report that is three months old, we publish the Debt Transparency Report every month. You can see the reports and every reporting agency’s numbers on our website, which is really the best window into Illinois’ finances.

I passed the Truth-in-Hiring Act requiring anyone working for the governor to appear on the governor’s payroll, instead of allowing governors to mask the size of their budgets by paying for their employees out of other agencies’ payrolls. I passed the Budgetting for Debt Act requiring governors to include in their budgets how they plan to pay down the state’s $1 billion in late payment interest penalties. And I passed the Lender Transparency Act shining a light on the lenders who profit from the state’s financial crisis.

All these transparency bills passed with unanimous or near-unanimous bi-partisan majorities because I worked them very hard on both sides of the aisle. I even asked a Republican legislator, Dave McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, to be chief sponsor of my Budgeting for Debt bill.

2. Should the offices of treasurer and comptroller be combined in Illinois? Why or why not?

No. The framers of the state constitution created these as separate offices after the combination Comptroller Treasurer Orville Hodge embezzled over $6 million in state funds in the 1950’s – the equivalent to $57 million in today’s money – far more than the farcical projected savings number backers of this ill-advised merger use.

In 2012, Rita Crundwell, the combined Comptroller and Treasurer of Dixon, IL, was convicted of embezzling $53.7 million from the town’s taxpayers.

Merging these offices would diminish the important checks and balances created by the Constitution. Who else believes these checks and balances are important? The credit rating agencies who assess Illinois’ worthiness for bond investors. They say they may lower their outlook on Illinois credit worthiness if that important internal control is removed. So not only would a merger for merger’s sake not save money – it would cost Illinois taxpayers money.

Please challenge backers of the “Save $12-$14 million by combining offices” canard to show their math. How do you save $12-$14 million by merging an $8 million office with a $23 million office? You would need to abolish statutorily mandated critical functions of both offices, like the state’s oversight of cemetery trust funds; collection of debt for other offices of government; the Bright Start program; and collecting and reporting municipal financial information. The numbers just aren’t there. Force them to spell out which programs they would abolish.

There have been times in Illinois’ history when both offices were occupied by Republicans and that will happen again and – check back with me then – I will still argue just as strongly to have different sets of eyes on this money to safeguard taxpayers’ interests.

3)  How would you assess the Legislature’s and governor’s approaches to addressing the state’s fiscal crisis the past 4 years? What more should be done?

The State Constitution, Article VIII, Section 2 (a) spells out that “The Governor shall prepare and submit to the General Assembly … a State budget” The budget must be balanced. The legislature’s job, as spelled out in the constitution is to make sure there is enough money to pay for the budget.

The Governor initially did a masterful PR job in misleading much of  Illinois into thinking the legislature failed IT’S job to send HIM a balanced budget, until enough civic groups began confirming that all the governor’s budgets were wildly out of balance — billions of dollars short, and it was the governor who refused to engage in any compromise. It was the governor who campaigned on a platform of “shutting things down” if he did not get every single one of his demands, including extreme anti-union legislation that legislative leaders could never have persuaded members to vote for even if they’d wanted them.

When legislative leaders of the governor’s own party intervened to craft a consensus budget, Rauner sabotaged the negotiations, cutting the political legs out from his own Senate Minority Leader Sen. Christine Radogno, forcing her resignation.

For 30 or 40 years, Republican governors from Thompson to Edgar to Ryan were able to pass compromise budgets every year with many of these same Democratic leaders including Speaker Madigan. What changed? A governor who refused to negotiate or compromise, unconcerned that the state’s social service agencies were starving, closing, cutting services.

Could legislators have bent even further backwards to try to accommodate the governor, perhaps but he seemed very unwilling to compromise. I’d say this was the governor’s impasse.

4.  Should the comptroller have more discretion regarding which of the state’s bills are paid and when, and will you seek it?

The Comptroller already has the discretion regarding which of the bills are paid and when. At the Governor’s direction, my predecessor moved $70 million from the General Revenue Fund days before I took office so she could pay politically connected consultants at the same time she had stopped paying hospice centers for six months, Some nursing homes were on the verge of closing because the state had not paid them in so long. Quarterly categorial payments in the state’s schools were running nearly a year behind. Social service agencies around the state were closing, cutting back services, laying off staff.

I quickly re-arranged priorities to make sure services for the state’s most vulnerable got paid first. To avoid further damage to our credit ratings, I start by paying our debt service payments and pension obligations. Medicaid and school payments are next. Nursing homes, hospice centers, children and adults with disabilities and those caring for them are at the front of the line once those other mandated payments are met. I will continue prioritizing education payments at every level, from early childhood through K-12, colleges and universities.

To squirrel away money for his budget shutdown, the Governor tried to make me use General Revenue Funds to pay salaries of maintenance and state garage workers traditionally paid from a maintenance and garage fund. I refused. He took me to court and the court affirmed that the Comptroller has the discretion to decide which bills to pay and from which funds.

My first day in office I fulfilled a campaign promise to move employee bonuses that a few politically connected employees got just before Election Day to the back of the line for payment. My predecessor said that could not be done.

5. What more can the comptroller’s website do to make state and local finances transparent for the public?

The information my office collects from each Illinois municipality and posts on our website is a good first step to giving residents an understanding of their local government’s finances. We are currently reevaluating the financial information made available through the government annual financial reports that are submitted to our office to ensure the information they provide to the public is relevant to the needs of the user.

We are also researching different options for presenting data comparison tools so the public is better able to understand the relative health of their government as compared to other similar governments.

When I took office in Dec. 2016, our local government team found a dearth of files on local government compliance with reporting requirements. How long had certain communities been failing to file reports? Were those communities warned of potential consequences such as fines or forced audits? Were any attempts made to work with those communities to remediate and get them compliant? 

So my office had to fashion a new system to document whether communities were filing the reports required by law and to document them being made aware of the consequences if they fail to follow the law.

The citizens of Illinois deserve to know the facts about whether their local governments are being fully transparent about their finances. I plan to expand on recent upgrades to our website to make accessing the information about local government finance even more user-friendly.

6. Should marijuana be legalized for recreational use in Illinois? Why or why not? 

We have to be careful not to let the state’s need for revenue drive the policy on marijuana. I could support legalization. Illinois’ experience since legalizing marijuana for a fixed number of medical conditions has been positive. The data so far appears to show that the states that have legalized marijuana have not experienced significant increases in crime or drug dependency as a result of that legalization.

Prosecution of marijuana use falls disproportionately on minorities though use of marijuana is not concentrated among minority populations. Arrest and Incarceration rates show the criminal justice system treats marijuana as a social/recreational drug in one community and a criminal violation in the other.

Keeping marijuana illegal empowers and enriches the gangs that distribute it widely in Illinois despite it being nominally illegal. A benefit of legalizing marijuana would be defunding the criminal gangs that control the technically illegal but widely available marijuana distribution in Illinois under the current system.

I think we should adopt a tax policy that targets revenues from marijuana to particular policy goals: law enforcement; drug dependency treatment; education; and/or paying down pension liabilities.

To avoid a repeat of the lottery experience, we would have to first establish a benchmark level of funding for education or whichever policy goal is designated. We should require that these new funds would not be used to supplant existing funding for these state programs.

7. Should the comptroller’s website include listings of contractors who haven’t yet been paid by the state, and how much they are owed?

The answer to this question is not as simple as it seems. This question assumes that this information is not already available on our website. Much of this information is there – at least as it relates to vouchers that have been sent to our office. Bills still at the agencies we can not provide.

Our staff are often able to track down state contracts for press, citizens or whoever calls. But we do not have staff paid to track those contracts and remind the agencies about remaining balances to be paid.

An obstacle to creating an easily searchable database of of all contractors who have not yet been paid and how much they are owed is the sheer volume of contractors that do business with the state – thousands of them.

Contractors themselves can check our website to see if they have vouchers that have come in for them and how soon those are likely to be paid. Our communications staff often works with the press to track down information about particular contractors and contracts.

We instituted a new reform last year to post information on all new contracts that come into the system.

An easily searchable database of contractors and funds owed to them under the Comptroller’s jurisdiction remains one of my longer-term goals as we move toward digitizing more of our information.

8. The comptroller’s office is responsible for oversight of the state’s cemeteries and crematories. How will you approach this duty of the office?

The PLACE (Pre-need Licensing And Certification Enforcement) Division of the Comptroller’s Office oversees over $2 billion in pre-need trust funds for cemeteries, funeral homes, and crematories throughout the state of Illinois. 

The Cemeteries Oversight Act spells out that the Illinois Dept. of Financial and Professional Regulation is responsible for monitoring the conditions of the cemetery grounds, ensuring proper burial locations, overseeing the conduct of cemetery management, etc. Our PLACE Division remains the fiscal watchdog of those cemeteries that have perpetual care funds; ensuring that the funds remain safe and entrusted properly for the consumer. 

We are in the process of doing a physical audit of every crematory in the state by the end of 2019. Industry projections indicate significant growth in this segment as time passes.

We have a team of auditors that work to maintain a relationship with licensed businesses and ensure that we hold them accountable for maintaining the integrity of the accounts.

9. Should Illinois’ tax structure be changed to bring in more revenue?

I favor repealing Illinois’ regressive flat tax which charges middle-class taxpayers the exact same rate as billionaires. Illinois taxpayers need look no further than some of our neighboring states to see systems that charge middle-class taxpayers no more than they are paying now and perhaps even less and those able to pay more a bit more. This would help Illinois pay down its debt; do a better job tackling its worst-in-the-nation pension shortfall; and pay for education, which would take pressure off local school boards that keep raising property taxes.

I do not favor the kind of county income tax Indiana has. New revenue from gaming and marijuana sales may also help.

But new revenue alone is not the answer to Illinois’ financial problems. I lead by example. When I got to Springfield, the General Assembly was holding appropriations hearings, asking the Governor’s department heads and agency directors what cuts they were willing to make in their budgets. None of them would identify a single cut.

I wasn’t shy. I went into my appropriation hearing and said, even though you’re not asking me, I’m going to voluntarily cut my budget by 10 percent. I presented the lowest proposed budget for the Office of the Comptroller in 20 years. I gave $1 million back to the taxpayers. Even during the worst fiscal crisis in the history of the state of Illinois, when the Comptroller’s office was being asked to do more than ever before, I said we were going to do more with less. And we have.

Cuts that do not impact the vulnerable who need state services will have to be part of the equation.

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October 11, 2018 at 09:02AM

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