With Illinois finances stretched thin, the role of Illinois Comptroller has taken on an elevated importance. There haven't been many chances for voters to compare the candidates vying for the job face-to-face, but the top candidates squared off Tuesday night in an interview on Chicago's WTTW-TV.
The comptroller is in charge of cutting the state's checks.
That's more complicated than it may sound. After all, Illinois doesn't have enough money to actually PAY all of its bills.
Comptroller Leslie Munger, a Republican and former business executive, says she's prioritized social services, and put lawmakers' paychecks at the end of the line.
But Munger says she had no choice but to pay out millions of dollars worth of bonuses awarded to state employees. She says there's no way to separate bonuses from workers' regular paychecks, which she's mandated to issue by court order.
"The payroll tapes come into our offices. We don't know what is in those tapes. We don't. That is up to the individual agencies and the various groups to decide what they are paying and once those come in, I have to run it because I'm under court order to pay all of those employees on those various time tables," she said. "There's no clarity in the tapes as to whether it's a bonus or not."
Munger's opponent, Democratic challenger Susana Mendoza, who is currently Chicago's City Clerk, says that's wrong.
"One of the first things that I will do when elected comptroller, is what she could have already done but hasn't, and that's to issue an accounting bulletin to every single state agency, and ask them for full transparency in how much money is being spent on base salary and how much is being paid out in bonuses," Mendoza said. "The most vulnerable people in the state of Illinois should really be prioritized, certainly over anybody receiving a performance bonus at a time where we're in our ... worst, worst fiscal crisis of all time."
Munger says Mendoza doesn't understand how the comptroller's office works, and says Mendoza helped create Illinois' fiscal troubles during a decade as a state legislator.
Munger, was appointed to the post by Governor Bruce Rauner, who recently gave a hefty contribution to Munger's campaign (as did some of Rauner's allies; some of that funding was later legally filtered to other Republican campaigns).
Mendoza says Munger is controlled by the wealthy governor.
"She just accepted -- from the person who she's supposed to be a checks and balances to -- last week, a check for $1 million. By the constitution, the Illinois comptroller's office should be an independently-elected office that serves as a watchdog over other executive offices."
Munger says she has stood up to Rauner, for example, by rejecting his controversial request that she stop collecting state employees' unions fair share fees.
"The governor has not bought me," Munger said. "In fact, I'm probably the most independent person here because I don't need this job. I took this role because I love Illinois."
Munger says Mendoza is beholden to House Speaker Michael Madigan, and to the unions largely funding her campaign. The Munger campaign is promoting a video, in which Mendoza lauds the Speaker.
Polls show both Rauner and Madigan are unpopular in Illinois.
Voters are less opinionated about Munger and Mendoza. According to a poll released by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute earlier this month, Mendoza is ahead, but nearly a quarter of voters are undecided on the comptroller's race.
Munger does have at least in common with Rauner: Both refuse to talk about their party's nominee for President.
Munger said that given Illinois' budget stalemate, she's focused on unity.
"I'm really working very hard to stay out of the issues at the top of the ticket. Because no matter who you talk to, there's divisive situations on both sides. You certainly cannot support a lot of the things that Trump has said," she said.
When asked directly by moderators Phil Ponce whether she'll vote for Trump, Munger responded: "My personal vote, is my personal vote." Governor Rauner generally avoids talking about Trump. He's denounced some of Trump's stances, but he's never backed away from saying this spring that he'll support his party's nominee.
"Let's be honest it takes a half a nanosecond to know where you should be with Donald Trump with everything he's said,"Mendoza said. Mendoza backs Hillary Clinton for President.
Libertarian candidate Claire Ball, an Addison accountant, and Green Party candidate Tim Curtin, are also running; neither were part of Tuesday's televised debate. They did appear before the Chicago Tribune editorial board in August, which is archived online.