Budget fight leaves Illinois stuck with overdue bills
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The Friday afternoon email read with remarkable alacrity, given its message: The trip to a Springfield store to buy all-purpose Fabuloso Cleaner for the Secretary of State’s office was for naught.
“They would not sell to us because we are shut off due to lack of payment,” the storeroom worker wrote to his boss and others. “Have a great weekend!”
As Illinois politicians continue to squabble over a budget that should have taken effect July 1, hundreds of state contractors have been left with little more than I.O.U.s, according to more than 500 pages of documents — just since Nov. 1 — released to The Associated Press under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
From a $28.44 late-notice water and sewer bill at the 1848 Mt. Pulaski Courthouse — which had neither when Abraham Lincoln practiced law there — to $4.8 million that Illinois owes Michigan for a health partnership, vendors have flooded the Capitol with disconnect warnings, credit-hold notices, desperate pleas and even a frowny face stamp in an effort to get paid.
The state owes $2 million to Ashley’s Quality Care in Chicago, which provides in-home care workers to keep seniors out of nursing homes, according to chief accountant Michael Robinson. The company has not met its payroll for 14 weeks, forcing the departure of 40 percent of its previous 1,000 employees; clientele has dipped by one-third, to 800, slicing revenue.
“You go from affecting a company, to its employees, to the clients, to the social well-being of the community,” Robinson said.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, insistent on pro-business changes to boost commerce, can’t agree on an annual spending plan with Democrats who control the Legislature. They oppose his conservative agenda, saying a multibillion-dollar deficit needs tax-increase and spending-cut triage.
“No one is more frustrated about the lack of a budget than Gov. Rauner,” said his spokeswoman, Catherine Kelly. “Bills could be paid if the Democratic majority in the Legislature worked with the governor to pass structural reforms and a balanced budget.”
The Department of Central Management Services, which oversees state facilities and purchasing, doesn’t track service disruptions because the number constantly changes as officials work to resolve issues, spokeswoman Meredith Krantz said. As for CMS, the agency declared the AP’s FOIA request for vendor notifications too burdensome to honor. A preliminary search revealed 7,800 emails related to the subject.
Billions of dollars continue to be spent on services ordered by federal court orders or limited legislative action, but the lack of spending authority means bureaucrats are spending more time dealing with angry vendors. Consider:
—The storeroom staffer’s failed shopping trip led a supervisor to compile a list of Springfield businesses that had cut off the state. It included a janitorial supply shop, hardware stores, a carpet store, an electrical supplier and a general construction firm.
— A Department of Human Services rehabilitation counselor in Downers Grove sought a taxi for a client and received an email that “all service is on hold due to non-payment.”
— An Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission arbitrator’s personalized date-stamp broke but it wasn’t replaced because the supplier was awaiting $511.06 that was past due.
— A New Jersey landlord threatened to evict Illinois Revenue Department tax auditors from their rented home in that state unless he received five months’ rent totaling $37,936.20. It was paid.
John Ulzheimer, an Atlanta-based consumer-credit expert, said credit risk is judged the same way for a government with a $35 billion budget as it is for an individual: If you don’t pay, you get cut off.
“People are going to start avoiding doing business with you or setting terms that are punitive because you’re risky to do business with,” Ulzheimer said.
One such vendor is Beatty TeleVisual, in Springfield, which is owed almost $400 by the state. Co-owner Wilma Beatty said she used to do more state work, but 56 years in business have taught her how to keep red ink out of the books. On a $207 bill to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, she used a stamp that reads, “Please” with a frowny face.
The debacle has produced provocative exchanges. “I feel sorry for the people who live in Illinois. Pretty sad!” wrote a St. Louis company’s administrative assistant. One bureaucrat, forwarding a sales rep’s overdue-payment warning up the chain, protested without irony, “I am only ordering what we need, nothing more.”
The state has deflected blame at times. When the Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging laid off a state-paid worker because of the spending freeze, the contract-termination letter noted, “the state does not intend to pursue damages as a result of this breach.”
That made the Peoria-based agency’s director, Keith Rider, scratch his head.
“If you have a contract with someone, and part of the contract is to pay them, and you don’t pay them, we’re in breach?” Rider asked. “That’s an ironic attitude for the state to take.”
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed.