"The comptroller is an independent constitutional officer with duties that usually no one pays attention to except in times like this," said Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. "In this case, the comptroller really is at the heart of the financial crisis we are facing, which is how to dole out the money in a reasonable way."
As the keeper of the state's checkbook, Mendoza is in a unique position to make Rauner's life difficult. At a time when Illinois doesn't have enough cash to go around, her office has great leeway to decide who gets paid when, and in some cases whether to stop payments altogether.
Mendoza did just that last week, suspending $27 million in funding the governor wanted to upgrade the state's aging technology systems. Mendoza said it was a matter of priorities, asking why computers should come before social service providers who've gone months without funding from the state. Rauner's office countered that streamlining technology programs will save money in the long run and protect sensitive data that could be otherwise compromised.
Earlier, Rauner was criticized for hiring former comptroller Munger to serve as a deputy governor, attacks that grew louder when it was discovered that her salary initially came from a pot of money earmarked to pay for state worker health care. That fund is more than $4 billion in the red as no money has been set aside to pay for employee health care during the budget impasse. Rauner said it was a "clerical error" and filed paperwork to change the funding source for Munger's salary, calling the issue a "political plant" by Mendoza.
On the flip side, Rauner has used the bully pulpit of the governor's office to keep the pressure on Mendoza. He has not only hired Munger, but also put on the payroll several members of her staff with vast knowledge of the inner workings of Mendoza's new office.
That's resulted in multiple attacks from Rauner over how Mendoza has prioritized payments during the impasse. Rauner first raised concerns over how much money the comptroller was setting aside for so-called hardship payments to social service providers within the Department of Aging. Those are payments that get rushed to businesses on the verge of closing or missing payroll because the state is so far behind in paying its bills. The Rauner administration said Mendoza cut that fund to $7 million a month from $20 million a month under Munger, putting groups that care for the elderly at risk.
Mendoza shot back that Rauner was cherry-picking issues in an effort to make her look bad, saying there was simply less money to go around as the state is coming out of a time of year where tax receipts are historically low so there is not as much cash on hand. Mendoza said she has requested help from the governor's office on identifying groups who need expedited payments but instead received a letter from the administration noting it was Mendoza's duty to decide how spending is prioritized.
Most recently, Rauner has gone after Mendoza over funding for a central Illinois drug abuse center, which considered closing next month if the state could not immediately provide nearly $350,000 it owes to the agency. Rauner's office accused Mendoza of "sitting on" money in her office. Mendoza toured the facility last week and said she would try to rush some money to the group but sought to put the blame on Rauner, saying he was making social service agencies "political pawns" in his budget fight with lawmakers.
The bad blood between Rauner and Mendoza follows a campaign last year in which both sides spent millions on the special election for comptroller.
In January 2015, Rauner appointed Munger to succeed Judy Baar Topinka, who died shortly after she was re-elected but before she could be sworn in for a second term as comptroller. Democrats signaled early on that they would not simply cede the post to Republicans, quickly pushing through legislation requiring a special election instead of allowing Munger to serve a full, four-year term.
Rauner refused to let his appointee go down without a fight, personally giving $1 million to Munger's campaign and getting allies to kick in millions more. Mendoza, meanwhile, received $1.3 million from organized labor and $400,000 from the Democratic Party of Illinois fund, which Madigan controls.
That, along with Mendoza's decadelong career in the House, has fueled accusations by the governor that Mendoza is working in lockstep with Madigan and other top Democrats to purposefully bring havoc upon the state's finances and shut down state government in an effort to win an eventual tax increase.
Rauner has sought to paint Madigan as the source of the state's many problems, frequently pointing to the speaker's long grip on state government. Rauner and the Illinois Republican Party that he funds spent tens of millions of dollars attempting to tie Democratic candidates to Madigan during the 2016 campaign cycle, an effort Republicans labeled a success after they picked up six seats in the legislature.
The goal is to now extend that branding to Mendoza, said a Republican operative who dismissed the notion that infighting between the two offices could reflect badly on both the comptroller and the governor given the delicate nature of running a state that's gone without a full budget since July 2015.
"As opposed to when Munger was there, there is more chaos that can be blamed on (Mendoza), because these things weren't happening prior to her coming into office," the operative said. "I think people are very smart and astute and they know it's not a coincidence that the person Madigan recruited for the office is pulling the strings. That's a very believable argument for people, whether it's true or not."
Rauner took to Twitter to trumpet this idea, posting a video online after he went to court after she moved to pay roughly 600 employees out of specialized funds set aside for garage and facilities maintenance instead of the state's general checking account. Rauner opposed that change because his office had been using those funds to pay for day-to-day operations during the state's budget impasse.
"It's part of a pattern we've seen, trying to create a crisis that would force an incomplete stopgap budget, or a massive tax hike with no changes to our broken system," Rauner said of Mendoza's effort, which was upheld by a judge.
Mendoza contended it's sexist to suggest that she works at the behest of Madigan and said it was "alarming" that Rauner believes there's a Democratic conspiracy working against him.
"It makes me wonder what's actually going on with him mentally, frankly," Mendoza said in an interview. "The last time I had to deal with somebody who had the ability to say stuff like that that was not based in reality was (former) Gov. (Rod) Blagojevich. And that didn't go over so well for him."
Mendoza, who could continue to blast Rauner during a Monday speech at the City Club, said she wouldn't be in the position of having to make difficult choices about spending what little money the state has if Rauner had worked in good faith with lawmakers to craft a budget.
"I just want to be able to do my job, it's a really difficult job in a normal time and especially now, when it's an almost impossible task, and now I am having to fend off these attacks," Mendoza said. "I have only been here five months, he can't blame me for social service providers closing, as much as he wants to shift the blame."