Editorial: The Tribune endorses Frerichs for treasurer and Mendoza for comptroller – Chicago Tribune

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State government is saddled with all kinds of waste. There’s pork barrel bloat, bureaucratic excess, runaway spending and … needless duplication.

We continue to urge Springfield to combine the Illinois offices of treasurer and comptroller into one office to save money and make the handling of taxpayer revenue more efficient. This isn’t a radical notion. Both Cook and Lake counties have consolidated the offices of recorder of deeds and county clerk. DuPage County wrapped its election commission into its county clerk’s office.

When warranted, smart consolidation in government simply makes sense. For many years, the roadblock to combining the state treasurer and comptroller offices was then-House Speaker Michael Madigan, but he’s out of Springfield and awaiting trial on corruption-related charges, including a new charge announced by federal prosecutors Friday alleging an illegal influencing scheme involving AT&T Illinois. It would require a constitutional amendment to consolidate these offices, but there’s no reason not to get this done.

Alas, during this election cycle, we still have both offices intact. Fingers crossed that this is the last time we make endorsements for both the treasurer and comptroller offices. We begin with the office of treasurer, which is tasked with investing taxpayer money after it’s collected, but before it’s spent.

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Incumbent Democrat Michael Frerichs has had this job since 2015. Since then, he has managed this office skillfully, making sound investments for the state’s portfolio that have earned taxpayers more than $1 billion. One of the treasurer’s core responsibilities is managing Illinois’ 529 college savings program, known as Bright Start. Under Frerichs, Bright Start has gone from one of the nation’s worst-rated college savings programs to one of the best — it has gotten a “Gold” rating from independent investment analysis firm Morningstar for five successive years.

We also like the way Frerichs has stewarded a state retirement savings program called Secure Choice, an effort that he rolled out in 2018. The program is geared toward Illinoisans who work at small businesses that cannot afford to provide access to 401(k) plans or traditional pensions. The state contracts with a money manager that monitors portfolios, investment returns and account costs — but, as with a 401(k), it’s the worker who decides how to invest the money. So far, Secure Choice has helped 100,000 Illinois workers save for retirement.

Frerichs says he has backed the idea of consolidating the treasurer and comptroller offices ever since his days in the Illinois Senate, where he served from 2007 to 2015. Enlisting an outside organization like the Civic Federation or the Commercial Club of Chicago to help craft the best approach toward consolidation would remove politics from the process, he says. “If we made a proposal that wasn’t partisan, that showed real savings, where you could have checks and balances — you’d be able to convince people,” Frerichs told us.

His opponent, GOP state Rep. Thomas Demmer, also supports consolidating the treasurer and comptroller posts. He has introduced legislation to get the issue on the ballot in 2015, 2019 and this year, and he says his years in the General Assembly make him best suited to push for the amendment referendum. “One of the best approaches would be to have a treasurer who has the ability to work with the General Assembly, to get people to put their names on it,” Demmer told us.

We have endorsed Demmer for the General Assembly in three elections since 2012. He has an ease with complicated topics as well as with the state budget, and he has been a strong force for job growth and economic development in the Dixon-area district he represents.

But track records matter and Frerichs has consistently shown himself to be skilled at handling Illinois’ investment portfolio, and the all-important Bright Start program. Our endorsement goes to Frerichs. Also on the ballot is Libertarian candidate Preston Nelson from downstate Benton.

The race for state comptroller pits Democratic incumbent Susana Mendoza against Republican Shannon Teresi, currently the McHenry County auditor. Also on the ballot is Libertarian candidate Deirdre McCloskey of Chicago.

If the treasurer is Illinois’ primary investment manager, the comptroller is the state’s main bill payer, with control over Springfield’s checking account. So financial acumen is a must, and both candidates bring strong money oversight credentials to the race.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza speaks with attendees at the Jackson County Democrats Annual Dinner during the “Working Families Bus Tour” with Gov. J. B. Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton on Aug. 25, 2022, in Murphysboro.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza speaks with attendees at the Jackson County Democrats Annual Dinner during the “Working Families Bus Tour” with Gov. J. B. Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton on Aug. 25, 2022, in Murphysboro. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

Teresi touts her background as a certified public accountant, a certified fraud examiner and certified internal auditor, as well as her work at the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. As McHenry County’s auditor since 2018, she ended the county’s practice of using taxpayer dollars to print promotional materials for politicians. “In doing so, I made enemies, many of whom were entrenched in the county’s political culture,” she told us. “That didn’t bother me because as the county auditor, I am the people’s accountant.”

Mendoza, meanwhile, has an achievement in her quiver that’s hard to ignore. As comptroller, she took the state’s massive backlog of unpaid bills, which stood at $16.7 billion in 2017 during Illinois’ budget impasse, and essentially eliminated it. Illinois now pays its bills on time. Given the state’s miserable legacy of fiscal mismanagement, Mendoza’s success in reining in the backlog deserves praise and is vital to the state’s financial outlook.

Illinois election 2022: See who the Tribune Editorial Board endorsed — plus how the candidates answered our questions ]

Under Mendoza, the state’s credit rating has been upgraded six times. And she pushed for passage of the Debt Transparency Act, which requires state agencies to report to the comptroller how much debt they have each month. That helps Mendoza manage the state’s cash flow and discourages agencies from allowing bills to pile up. Her overall philosophy is to pay down debt rather than build it up and save money rather than spend every last penny. “I’ve been a loud advocate for not spending every dollar we come across, but instead saving today so we can invest in tomorrow,” she told us.

Our one complaint about Mendoza: She opposes consolidation of the offices of comptroller and treasurer. She contends that the offices carry out different missions and hence do not have duplicate staff that can be eliminated.

But as Frerichs points out, there are groups of employees in each office — legal departments, for example — and other administrative positions that could be pared down through consolidation.

Mendoza also cites as a red flag the case of Orville Hodge, who in the 1950s served as the state’s sole fiscal officer. His office included both the comptroller and treasurer functions, and he ended up embezzling $1.5 million. Yes, but in the 1950s, how much oversight did Hodge’s office get? Today, we’d hope that a combined comptroller-treasurer office would be watched over for seeds of wrongdoing. That’s why Illinois has posts such as auditor general and inspector general.

Teresi has come out in support of combining the offices of treasurer and comptroller. That’s fine. But as the incumbent, Mendoza has consistently displayed decision-making that leads to improvements in Illinois’ financial stability, and that’s something Illinoisans can ill-afford to give up.

Our endorsement goes to Mendoza.

What’s an endorsement, and why does the Tribune Editorial Board do them? ]

Join the discussion on Twitter @chitribopinions and on Facebook.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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October 18, 2022 at 07:09AM

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