SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — 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 and hundreds of bills dating back to 2010, according to an Associated Press analysis of state documents. The true backlog is even higher because some bills have not yet been approved for payment and officially added to the tally.
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 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 from 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. “God, how much more can our people take?” said 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.
Delaying payments during tough times is nothing new for Illinois, though past delays were shorter and more limited. 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 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.
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.
When you’ve got a system that allows substitute teachers to work just one day and receive a $100,000/year state pension, what do you expect?
Can you imagine a private business operating in this manner? The owners/management would be hauled off to jail. But in government, especially the corrupt state of Illinois, it’s “business as usual”.