- Associated Press - Thursday, January 8, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Illinois’ Democratic-led General Assembly approved legislation Thursday establishing a special election in two years’ time for state comptroller, a pointed move that defies the wishes of GOP Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner days before his inauguration.

The Senate approved the measure by a 37-15 vote, while the House backed it 66-40. Outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn has indicated that he plans to sign the bill into law in one of his last acts before leaving office.

The move illustrates the partisan divide in place as Illinois prepares to enter its first split government in more than a decade. Democrats said the legislation was in the spirit of democracy and good government, while Republicans called it a political power grab.

Rauner’s spokesman, Mike Schrimpf, released a statement Thursday evening saying Democrats in the General Assembly “refused to take bipartisan steps” and “proceeded instead with a constitutionally dubious election bill.”

Quinn had called for the special session following Republican comptroller Judy Baar Topinka’s death early last month. Topinka was elected to a second term in November, but died six weeks before taking the oath. A legal opinion from Attorney General Lisa Madigan determined that Quinn could appoint a replacement to serve until Monday, when the current term expires, but that Rauner could name someone to take on the new term.

A special election in 2016 gives Democrats, who control both chambers, a chance to take away the position, especially if there is a strong presidential candidate atop the ticket, political experts say.

Majority Democrats defended the measure during debate on the floor. They said Rauner’s choice, businesswoman Leslie Munger, would serve without voter approval and that holding a special election in a little under two years was ideal.

“It’s about the right of the people in a democracy to select their leaders,” House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie said. “It has nothing to do with the governor. … Democratic government is not about political partisanship.”

In addition to the comptroller position, the bill also would apply to other vacancies that might occur in statewide constitutional offices going forward, except the governor’s office.

Still, Republicans complained the move was designed to strip Rauner of his executive authority and an attempt to put Democrats back in the game for the post in 2016.

Republicans said the move, which would cut the tenure of Rauner’s appointment in half, was a purely partisan maneuver at a time the two sides have pledged mutual cooperation in addressing the state’s biggest issues.

GOP state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine said approval of the legislation “sets a new day in Springfield off on a disappointing foot. It poisons the well.”

Rauner, Madigan and Cullerton have previously expressed hopes of working together constructively on the state’s largest problems, including a massive budget hole. Top Democrats said their aim in approving the legislation was not to impede a working relationship with the new governor.

Cullerton said those efforts wouldn’t be hindered by Thursday’s action.

“We have plenty of other things to talk about to get us off on a good foot,” Cullerton said.

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Follow Kerry Lester on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kerrylester and John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor

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