In her first days on the job in December 2016, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza grabbed the purse strings of a state in the midst of a fiscal unraveling.

The “rainy day” fund in Illinois stood at $60,000, enough to run the state for just a matter of minutes. In the middle of a 17-month budget impasse between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-controlled legislature, the state’s backlog of unpaid bills was on a steep climb toward $16.7 billion in overdue IOUs.

The state’s unfunded pension liabilities were rising toward $145 billion, and credit rating agencies were on a run of eight straight rating downgrades that ultimately would leave Illinois one notch above “junk” status.

Fast forward five years. Mendoza has whittled down the bill backlog to $3.8 billion and is paying bills within 15 days. Illinois was the only U.S. state to borrow from the federal government’s Municipal Liquidity Facility at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but Mendoza repaid a $2 billion debt two years early, avoiding $82 million in interest payments.

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David Greising

David Greising is the president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, joining the BGA in 2018. For nearly a century, the BGA has fought for honest and effective government through investigative...