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Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011 02:28 pm

Outspoken Topinka isn’t shy about budget cuts

“Is it weird that I’m kind of glad to have Judy Baar Topinka back?” a Democratic friend of mine asked me the other day.

No, I replied. It’s not weird. I’m glad she’s back as well. She’s crazy, I said, but in a very sane way.

Topinka was elected state comptroller last November by a huge margin, while spending just $270,000. That’s less than half of what it costs to run a decent state House campaign.  Some cost many times that.

Down-ballot statewide races like Topinka’s revolve a lot around name recognition. Topinka was state treasurer for three terms, so Illinoisans knew who she was.

After losing the 2006 governor’s race to Rod Blagojevich, voters this last time around may have tried to make it up to her by casting more votes for Topinka than she’d ever received before. She lost just two counties and performed way better in Cook County than any statewide Republican candidate, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk. 

Topinka has kidded me recently for being responsible for that failed 2006 gubernatorial bid, which put her out of government for four years. I’ve covered her for more than 20 years and she was a great source of information while she was in the state Senate, so while she was attempting to make up her mind about challenging Blagojevich she asked for my thoughts. I don’t give advice, but I did pose two questions to her:

1) Are you comfortable serving another four years as treasurer with Rod Blagojevich as governor?

2) If Blagojevich or one of his top cronies is indicted before the election and a Republican goes on to win, are you comfortable with all of the candidates who have announced a primary bid?

Apparently, the answer was “No” to both, because she took the plunge, but then lost by 10 points.

Topinka has a well-known reputation for being tight with a dollar. She’s a thrift shop, garage sale kind of person who lives in a modest neighborhood in suburban Riverside. With the state’s backlog of unpaid bills in the billions, a penny-pincher is good to have around.

She’s also a beloved figure on both sides of Springfield’s political aisle. She’s not overly partisan and her years in the General Assembly helped her understand how the process works. But she’s no get-along, go-along type. Topinka speaks her mind, and has a very sharp tongue. Few in politics can get away with that, but she’s always managed to say what was on her mind while still getting things done.

A few weeks ago Topinka did something that most Illinois politicians have refused to do. She got specific about actual budget cuts.

As the state government slid into budgetary Hell, most Republicans chastised the Democrats for not cutting the budget, but then refused to offer up any real cuts of their own. The majority Democrats were even worse. They’re in control, but they punted to Gov. Pat Quinn, sending him “lump sum” budgets that didn’t make any specific cuts, but just reduced spending for each of his agencies.

So when Topinka mentioned on a radio program that it would be easy to find a billion dollars in cuts, I challenged her staffers to come up with a list. They did.

Now, not everybody agrees that her list would actually save a billion dollars, myself included. But at least she was willing to stick her neck out and put her name on some real budget reductions, including a $100 million cut to universal preschool, moving seniors out of nursing homes and into home care to save $120 million more, and eliminating the state’s $26 million Amtrak operating subsidy.

You may not agree with Topinka’s cuts, but we need far more budget ideas on the table. The state budget has been left to the two Democratic legislative leaders and the governor for far too long. Republicans and rank-and-file Democrats have abdicated their responsibility as legislators.

The object of a General Assembly is to collect ideas from all over the state and then percolate them in Springfield. And even though the state just raised taxes, budget cuts will still be required because the hole wasn’t completely filled and pension, labor, health care and material and energy costs will continue to rise every year.

Topinka has put herself out there. It’s time for everybody else to follow suit.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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