What to say about an $8.5-billion backlog?

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALAN SOLOMON/TNS
As you probably know already, Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger said last week that the state government’s backlog of unpaid bills will hit $8.5 billion by the end of December, up from about $6 billion right now.

That’s a headline grabbing number, since the end of December is not exactly the greatest time for people and companies that are owed money by the state. The state’s bill backlog was about $8 billion this past January, right after most of the 2011 state income tax hike expired. But the backlog fell to $3.5 billion by the end of July, and just $2.3 billion of those bills were more than 30 days overdue.

But let’s take a look at another estimate Comptroller Munger released last week.

The comptroller totaled up state spending from last fiscal year that isn’t currently being mandated by federal and state court decrees (Medicaid bills, state employee and judicial salaries, etc.), continuing appropriations (bond and pension payments, legislative salaries), a signed appropriations bill (K-12 education) and other things, and came up with $4.3 billion.

The $4.3 billion is the total amount that was paid out last year but is not currently being sent to colleges and universities, state employee health care providers, non-Medicaid social service providers, MAP Grant college student aid recipients, lottery winners over $25,000, plus various “transfers out,” including to local governments for things like motor fuel tax distributions.

Eventually that money will have to be paid in full or in part, or significant portions of the state are gonna be in a big world of hurt.

So, the Senate Democrats stepped in last week and passed an appropriations bill which covers most of those state payments that aren’t already going out the door. The problem, of course, is that just because they passed a spending bill doesn’t mean there is any money to pay those bills.

And there are indeed no available state revenues to pay for most of those appropriations (with exception for money that comes out of “special funds” like the $582 million appropriated from the Motor Fuel Tax Fund).

It’s kinda like thinking you have money in your bank account because you still have plenty of checks.

All the Senate’s legislation would do is hasten the point at which the state physically runs out of money to pay any of its obligations. There’s already billions of dollars less coming into state coffers because of the January tax hike expiration, but the Senate bill would spend billions of dollars more.

The governor’s overall record on veto overrides so far this year has been 60 wins and 1 loss, with that one “loss” being a veto of Medicaid funding for heroin treatment which was overridden by both chambers and is therefore now law. But the governor agreed to Republican legislators’ demands to not oppose the override, and there are those who believe he only vetoed it so he could look like he was opposed to spending money on heroin addiction treatment, so it wasn’t really a “loss.”

It’s therefore more than reasonable to assume that even if the House Democrats do manage to get all 71 of their members to town later this month and pass the Senate’s spending legislation (probably a big “if” since one of those Democrats has tickets to see Pope Francis that very day), the governor will likely veto the thing and then the House Democrats will struggle in vain yet again to override. So, last week’s floor action could very well turn out to be futile. And even if they do override him, the governor doesn’t have to spend the money without a court order.

In an open letter to members last week, the governor’s chief legislative liaison urged the Senate Democrats to “come back to the negotiating table to pursue compromise, reform and a balanced budget,” to which the Senate Dems responded, “what is this ‘negotiating table’ that they speak of?.”

According to the Senate Democrats, the four legislative leaders and the governor have not met with each other since late May. And the governor refuses to even discuss the budget until the Democrats agree to address his “Turnaround Agenda.”

I just don’t know what to say anymore.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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