Updated: November 17, 2011 8:53AM
Drowning in deficits, Illinois has turned to a deliberate policy of not paying billions of dollars in bills for months at a time, creating a cycle of hardship and sacrifice for residents and businesses helping the state carry out some of the most important government tasks.
Once intended as a stop-gap, the months-long delay in paying bills has now become a regular part of the state’s budget management, forcing businesses and charity groups to borrow money, cut jobs and services and take on personal debt. Getting paid can be such a confusing process that it requires begging the state for money and sometimes has more to do with knowing the right people than being next in line.
As of early last month, the state owed on 166,000 unpaid bills worth a breathtaking $5 billion, with nearly half of that amount more than a month overdue, according to an Associated Press analysis of state documents. Hundreds of bills date back to 2010 and the actual amount owed is likely higher because some bills are still in the pipeline.
While other states with budget problems have delayed paying their bills, the backlog in Illinois is unmatched, experts say. Year after year, Illinois builds its budget on the assumption that it will pay its bills months late — essentially borrowing money from businesses and nonprofits that have little choice but to suffer the financial hardship.
The unpaid bills range from a few pennies to nearly $25 million. In early September, for example, Illinois owed $55,000 to a small-town farm supply business for gasoline, $1,000 to a charity that provides used clothing to the poor, $810,000 to a child-nutrition program.
Even death involves delays in Illinois. Funeral homes were waiting for $2.8 million in overdue reimbursement for burying indigent people.
Leigh Ann Stephens wrote a letter in August “asking, pleading” for $50,000 the state owed the DuPage Center for Independent Living, where she is executive director. It was the third time in two years that she had sent a hardship letter warning that the center, which helps people with disabilities live outside of costly nursing homes, would close if it wasn’t paid.
The letter got results, for now, but it hasn’t reversed cuts. Stephens has laid off one of eight employees, stopped opening on Fridays, cut back hours for part-time workers and reduced salaries 7.5 percent for herself and the other full-time worker. Like their clients, most of the employees are disabled, coping with blindness, loss of hearing, cerebral palsy and more.
“This is not just a job for me. It’s a way of life,” Stephens said. “I can be angry. I can be sad. I can be so mad that I cry. I have thrown things across the room.”
Sara Moscato Howe, CEO of the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association, calls the impact of late payments and budget cuts “a slow strangulation death.”
“We are basically bankrolling the state. It’s a ridiculous situation,” said Abha Pandya, CEO of Asian Human Services, a Chicago organization awaiting payment on $609,000 in bills, some of them stretching back to November of last year. “It’s just absolutely awful and there seems to be no end in sight.”
The delays have prompted relatively little public outcry, perhaps because so much attention has been focused on other budget battles or there is no one politician or agency to blame. It also reflects resignation among some vendors who no longer expect the corruption-plagued Illinois government to function properly.
“We’ve become accustomed to it. Being angry is not going to change it,” said Suzanne Young, who has had a hard time getting the state to pay her business, Rockford Map Publishers.
Illinois leaders join in bemoaning the crisis but haven’t been able to find a solution.
“I really feel terrible every day that we can’t pay these bills,” says Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a veteran politician responsible for trying to pay a seemingly infinite stack of bills with the finite amount of money approved by legislators and the governor.
Under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, big spending collided with a recession that sent state revenue spiraling downward. Illinois could no longer afford to pay its bills and the backlog exploded.
Blagojevich’s replacement, Democrat Gov. Pat Quinn, raised income taxes and trimmed spending, but that money was gobbled up by other needs, primarily rising pension costs. Under budget agreements with legislative leaders, all Democrats, bills continued to go unpaid.
As recently as June 2008, Illinois paid its bills seven days after state agencies finished the paperwork. A year later, the delay had reached 99 days. It stood at 118 days in June of this year, the comptroller’s office said.
The General Assembly has accepted the unpaid bills as an unpleasant necessity while Illinois claws its way out of deficits that once topped $13 billion. Lawmakers of both parties rejected Quinn’s proposal to borrow money so the state can pay its overdue bills, although he says he’ll try again when lawmakers meet later this month.
Instead, Illinois has turned businesses, charities and local governments into unwilling short-term lenders, using their money to operate government and disguise the depth of the state’s financial problems.
Illinois grants “expedited payment” to vendors who say they’re on the verge of shutting down if they don’t get their money, but the proc-
ess lacks clear rules. The Illinois governor and comptroller each say the other makes the final decision on payments, and documents show a letter of support from a legislator — Republican or Democrat — can often shake loose money for vendors.
Many states use the budget gimmick of delaying payments when money is tight, but Illinois is seen as the worst.
“I think you win the championship,” said Elizabeth Boris, an expert on nonprofit groups at the Urban Institute think tank. AP