Article updated: 10/16/2011 11:32 AM

Deadbeat Illinois: Behind the numbers

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By Christopher Wills

SPRINGFIELD -- The state's backlog of unpaid bills changes depending on when you look and how you count.

The Associated Press and newspapers across Illinois including the Daily Herald chose to look at bills waiting for payment by the state comptroller on Sept. 8.

The total that day was 166,000 vouchers worth $5.01 billion.

That means state agencies had approved them for payment, but the comptroller had not yet written the checks, primarily because money wasn't available.

Two months earlier, the total had been $3.6 billion, and a month later it was down to $3.3 billion, demonstrating how quickly it can change.

Generally, the backlog is a bit smaller now than it was a year ago, but experts don't expect any substantial improvement anytime soon.

Here's more detail on the numbers:

• Even in strong budget years there can be some delay between a bill being approved for payment and the comptroller actually issuing the check. The reporting for the "Deadbeat Illinois" project focused on bills that had gone at least 30 days without payment. They totaled $2.19 billion.

But the state's obligations go beyond just the unpaid bills.

• Two major government costs are not included when looking at unpaid bills, the comptroller's office said. One is health insurance premiums for state employees. The other is tax refunds to Illinois corporations. These obligations are handled by the Department of Healthcare and Family Services and the Department of Revenue, not the comptroller.

As of mid-October, unpaid insurance premiums amounted to $1.2 billion and overdue refunds totaled $515 million, officials said. Those figures would have to be added to the overdue bills to get a better idea of the total obligations on which the state is late in paying.

• The backlog total doesn't include bills still in the pipeline from various agencies to the comptroller's office. There can be a significant lag between the day a business or association submits a bill and the day an agency sends it to the comptroller for payment, and there's no practical way to calculate the value of these bills.

For instance, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services said on Oct. 11 that it had $1.8 billion in bills that had not yet been turned in for payment.

• In addition to payments to business and nonprofits that have done work on behalf of the state, the backlog tracked by the comptroller includes many other costs. Also included is interest on overdue state bills and expense reimbursements to state employees and payments from one state agency to another.

Money promised to schools, cities and counties also shows up in the list of unpaid bills. Sometimes that's for specific services, such as a county providing power and water for a state facility, and sometimes it's for grants that the local government can use for its own programs.

Illinois sometimes helps the victims of violent crime with reimbursement for medical bills and lost wages. Even those people were caught up in the backlog -- $178,000 to 44 people was at least a month overdue as of Sept. 8

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