No blank check for Quinn borrowing

Benjamin Yount

Democrats will control most of the process to craft a new state budget next year.  But the only two Republicans to win a statewide office last week say they will have their say as well.

Comptroller-elect Judy Baar Topinka and Treasurer-elect Dan Rutherford both plan to flex their muscle as the state's fiscal officers, with an aim at Gov. Pat Quinn's borrowing.

Quinn has called borrowing one of his "budget pillars."  But state law requires both the state treasurer and comptroller to sign-off on short term borrowing in Illinois.  Topinka said that means she'd better get answers to her questions.

"I have a number of questions about any type of short term borrowing," she said.  "What will the money be used for, how long will it be out, and is there money for the state to pay it back?"

Topinka vowed she won't be issuing any blank checks to the governor.  Rutherford has the same criteria as Topinka when it comes to borrowing.  And he thinks he has a mandate to be tough.

Rutherford said voters picked Republicans to hold the fiscal offices of the state for a reason.

"[One] thing that I think is going to be impactful is to have people who are willing to articulate what may be a differing opinion on the finances of the state."

Rutherford said that not all borrowing is bad, but he does worry about Illinois' mounting debt and the state's ability to repay what it borrows. 

Illinois will have billions in short term loans to repay.  Quinn borrowed $1.3 billion over the summer.  That bill will come due within a year, and will have to be factored into the FY12 state budget.

The Quinn administration is also planning to add to the debt load by privatizing Illinois' share of the tobacco settlement.  That will require $1.2 billion in bonds,  And then there are a billion dollars in fund transfers from last year that have to be paid back next spring.

Both Topinka and Rutherford insist their view of the governor's borrowing strategy is based on fiscal policy, not politics. 

"I was kicked out of George Ryan's office for refusing to sign off on his plans to borrow.  It has nothing to do with they party of the governor," said Topinka.

Rutherford said Illinois is too broke for him to play games.

"If [the borrowing plan] is something that makes sense, there's a means to pay it back, we understand where the money is going to go to, is there a revenue stream, all of those, I'm willing to look at it.  I'm not going to be an obstructionist just to be an obstructionist," added Rutherford.

Rutherford and Topinka will not have to sign off on longer term borrowing, or proposals that go before the General Assembly.  But both say they still expect to weigh in on ideas like the pension borrowing plan Quinn has asked lawmakers to approve.

A Quinn spokesman said the administration is still calculating how much money may need to be borrowed for the upcoming budget.  But added, "The Quinn administration is looking forward to working with the newly elected Constitutional Officers to do what is in the best interest of Illinois taxpayers."

The new Treasurer and Comptroller said it remains to be seen what is in the best interest of the taxpayers. 

But Topinka and Rutherford do know that there will be cheesecake at the Capitol next spring.  Topinka brought the annual cheesecake day to Springfield, where she handed out free slices of the dessert, during her tenure as state treasurer.  Topinka said she will definitely bring the tradition with her to the comptroller's office.  Rutherford said he may have to find his own outreach, or free dessert day.