Lawmakers plan $1.3B trim to state bills backlog

By David Mercer

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, June 10 2012 1:00 a.m. MDT

Sharon Kayser, executive director of the now-closed Counseling Center of Lake View, stands inside the facility with a sign in the window about the agency's closure in Chicago on Friday, June 8, 2012. The Chicago nonprofit, a mental health services provider, shut down at the end of April, waiting on about $200,000 in state money. Illinois lawmakers have found a way to whittle $1.3 billion from the state government's massive backlog of unpaid bills, but it came to late for the center. Anticipating an annual summer stall in the already-slow payments and eroded by years of cuts in state funding, Kayser said the agency opted to close and find new places for 400 clients rather than continue to slowly fade away.

M. Spencer Green, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois lawmakers have found a way to whittle $1.3 billion from state government's massive backlog of unpaid bills, but it comes too late for The Counseling Center of Lake View.

The Chicago nonprofit, a mental health services provider, shut down at the end of April, waiting on about $200,000 in state money.

Anticipating an annual summer stall in the already-slow payments and eroded by years of cuts in state funding, Executive Director Sharon Kayser said the agency opted to close and find new places for 400 clients rather than continue to slowly fade away.

"It's really hard to put together a budget and run a business with that level of uncertainty. Payments, they typically stop around May and don't pick up again until September," she said Thursday as she tied up the center's loose ends. "It was only going to get worse."

Across Illinois, the now $8.5 billion backlog has become a fact of life for people doing business with the state. As The Associated Press reported in a series last fall, the state 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 its most crucial tasks.

Public schools, as of late May, are waiting on $562 million, social services $329 million and Medicaid $944 million, according to the state Comptroller's Office. While the damage has been extreme for Illinoisans like Kayser, others have found ways to deal with what they call the new normal, such as service cuts and funding from other sources, including the federal government, private grants and donations.

Lawmakers' plan to trim the backlog this year reduced it by a relatively small slice — 15 percent. But shaving away even that small piece, if Gov. Pat Quinn signs off on the budget, would carry a cost. Some of the money comes from cuts in other areas, education among them.

"It's the first time that I can remember where education — elementary and secondary — took a hit," said Rep. Frank Mautino, a Democrat from Spring Valley. "Nothing in this budget is easy."

Any progress is good, said Kelly Kraft, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn. "We feel that's a good start, yes," she said.

Kraft said Quinn's staff is now comparing the General Assembly's budget with the one the governor proposed months ago. She said he usually signs a new budget July 1.

Among the legislature's steps to address overdue bills before they adjourned their spring session on June 1:

— Cut spending on K-12 education by $210 million. The human services portion of the budget would lose $200 million and higher education spending would be cut by $113 million.

— As part of a $2.7 billion plan to prop up Medicaid, the state's health care system for the poor and disabled, a limit how many bills the state can put off to future years. The money that bill would provide if signed by Quinn, as expected, would hold the backlog where it is.

— Refinance some state bond debt. Mautino estimates the savings at about $50 million.

Kraft said Quinn hasn't made any decisions about whether he'll adjust the cuts in the proposed budget, but that virtually any cut will hurt someone.

"When you do put aside $1.3 billion for bills, there are going to be certain things, certain services, that people have relied on, that aren't going to be there," she said.

For service providers and vendors, the unpaid bills have meant not relying on the state for some time.

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