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posted: 10/16/2011 5:00 AM

A scandalous policy of paying late

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

The figures are numbing.

The state of Illinois owes creditors a staggering $5 billion in 166,000 unpaid bills, according to a study of state documents by an extraordinary collaboration of The Associated Press and most of Illinois' major newspapers including the Daily Herald.

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That's $5 billion. Just imagine.

Let's take just one example from today's installment of "Deadbeat Illinois" -- our schools. The state is late on $95 million in payments to area school districts. Just try to imagine that, the size of that debt, the impact the late payments have on our children's' educations, the cost to local taxpayers.

That's $95 million.

But it's not just schools and it's not just supposedly affluent suburban ones. It's almost everybody the state owes. It's schools, it's hospitals, it's social service agencies, it's businesses. It's everybody.

The figures are numbing.

So numbing that it's hard to know how to react to it. So numbing and now so commonplace that all of us practically resign ourselves to it and accept it. Well, that's just the way it is, we think.

An eloquent quote in today's story by AP's Christopher Wills summarizes the frustration. Leigh Ann Stephens, the executive director of the DuPage Center for Independent Living in Glen Ellyn, talked about the impact of the state's delinquency on the facility, which helps people with disabilities live outside of nursing homes. She said it was forced to lay off one of its eight employees, cut back hours for part-timers, reduce pay, and close the center on Fridays.

"This is not just a job for me," Stephens said. "It's a way of life. I can be angry. I can be sad. I can be so mad that I cry. I have thrown things across the room."

As today's report indicates, the state has operated this way for some time. But in the past, the late payments were for the most part stopgap measures.

Now, however, the practice has become routine. A way of doing business.

It's a wonder with that way of doing business that anyone does any business with the state at all. It very well may be the worst backlog in delinquent bills in the nation.

The figures are numbing.

But we can't afford to be numbed by it. As voters, we must be enraged by it. Statewide elections will be taking place next year. In the suburbs, all of our state representative seats will be up for election and half of our state senate seats.

Here's a litmus test question for each candidate: What are you going to do to get the bills paid on time? Not: "Are you opposed to the state's practice of late payments?" Who's going to say no to that? The question's got to be more concrete: "What are you going to do to get the bills paid on time?"

And while we're at it, we all might ask the incumbents what they're doing about it now.

The figures are numbing.

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