Budget: State's unpaid bills could more than double in the next 5 years, watchdog group says
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn delivers his State of the Budget Address to a joint session of the General Assembly on the House floor at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Wednesday, March 18, 2009. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
SPRINGFIELD — Almost 10 years ago, Mike Baker and his family moved from Carpentersville to Schaumburg because he thought services offered at the local schools would benefit his son Bryan, who has autism.
Baker says he's glad he and his wife made the decision. Bryan, now 14, likes his school and teachers and is doing well.
"It had to be my son first," Baker said.
Switching suburbs, though, didn't get Baker out of Illinois, where the state's financial issues could haunt his family for years as funding is cut for vocational services for students like Bryan.
As Gov. Pat Quinn is set to deliver his budget plan to lawmakers Wednesday, the Bakers' story is one that repeats throughout the suburbs for families and the institutions trying to care for them.
It's a tough spot for the governor as he faces a re-election campaign that will heat up later this year. The state debt is among the most troublesome in the country, putting immense pressure on Quinn to get it under control.
But getting it under control — especially as lawmakers continue to butt heads over long-term fixes — could mean more unpopular cuts in the short term.
The consequences of Illinois' money troubles are widespread in Chicago's suburbs, though it's not always obvious as headlines focus on closing prisons and mental health facilities downstate.
With funding cut or payments months late, some suburban school districts have restricted which students get bused or lengthened the walk to a bus stop, raising safety concerns. Public university tuition has climbed, costing suburban parents more and leaving students with a lot more debt.
Slot machines have arrived at suburban bars to pay for new roads and bridges, and the promise of income from new casinos someday could lead to more of them in the suburbs and Chicago.
No one is getting paid on time, from people who care for the elderly, disabled and abused, to funeral homes waiting to get reimbursed for burying the poor.
The state's budget troubles aren't new. And despite Democrats' rule as the state's problems have worsened, voters elected more members of the party to office just months ago.
It's unclear what exactly Quinn will propose Wednesday. Illinois isn't likely to dig itself out of a budget pinch this big in one year. After all, it hasn't yet.
"We just have to make do with what we have," said Quinn budget spokesman Abdon Pallasch.
With rising debt and health care costs — as well as $9.7 billion in unpaid bills the state can barely afford to chip away at — lawmakers largely are stuck trying to stop the bleeding.
"The first side of the equation is to make sure it doesn't grow," state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat and chairman of a budget committee, said of the state's deficit.
That's little consolation to Baker, whose son is on a waiting list to get additional services such as vocational training — skills that could help Bryan live on his own later in life.
Baker in the meantime is working with other local parents in the Schaumburg Autism Society to raise money to help developmentally disabled students attend a Harper College vocational educational program.
But questionable state support makes things harder.
"He's going to get older, and the problems are only going to get worse," Baker said.
Last week, budget watchdog the Civic Federation predicted the state's unpaid bills tally could more than double in the next five years.
That might be the state's most urgent of many problems, but lately, lawmakers' budget focus has been on the state's rising pension costs.
The retirements of teachers, university workers and state employees is likely to cost the state $1 billion more than last year — a harsh expense when lawmakers are already strapped for cash.
Not only that, but lawmakers' attempts to cut health care services for the poor last year haven't saved as much as expected, offering another hurdle they'll have to clear this year.
It's a big issue in the suburbs, where use of the Medicaid program has risen faster than it has statewide.
Cutting services means less access to doctors for the state's poor. And when the state is late in paying doctors because it's so broke, the doctors won't see Medicaid patients.
"The point is this is a whole cycle," said state Rep. Patti Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican and point person on the issue.
The question of how to get out of that cycle will dog lawmakers until their May 31 budget deadline and beyond. After Quinn gives his address, the budget-making process will pick up speed. In both the House and Senate, it's already started.
That process is guided by a program championed by two suburban Democrats, state Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge and state Rep. Carol Sente of Vernon Hills. It requires the state, among other things, to pay its debts first and only spend the pot of money left over.
The method could help keep the state's woes from growing. But in the short-term especially, more cuts could be unpopular.
Suburban people who depend on the state for money can do little but wait and watch in the meantime.
The Community Crisis Center in Elgin is owed about $180,000 in state payments, said Executive Director Gretchen Vapnar.
The domestic abuse shelter gets by in the short term with the generous help of donors, she said. But long-term, donors might get tapped out and the facility depends on government funding to pay for more than half of its budget
"We're asking too much of the local community," Vapnar said. "They've already paid their taxes."
Plus, she said, the center honors its contract to provide services every year. But in the meantime, the state can't hold up its end of the bargain by paying its bills on time.
"We have never, ever failed to fulfill that," she said. "It's a game with two sides that are not equal."
Still, Vapnar said, it's been worse. Before lawmakers and Quinn raised income taxes in early 2011, the state was looking at a projected deficit of $15 billion.
In reality, the state has been facing financial problems for at least a decade, and voters might lose a sense of how the degree of the problem changes over the years.
For example, when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich faced his first budget in 2003, the state had about $1.4 billion in unpaid bills.
Even then, Blagojevich — who many in Springfield blame for a lot of the problems because of his grand health care plans, skipped pension payments and questionable financial management — called it a "crisis."
"This budget crisis is the fault of the political leadership in Illinois, not the people of our state," Blagojevich said.
Ten years later, the unpaid bills total has grown more than fivefold and Blagojevich is in prison, guilty of corruption. The state's pension payment in 2003 was about $1.6 billion. This year, it could be about $6.7 billion, a $5 billion difference that would be enough to pay for the whole state prison system for five years.
So Quinn's assignment Wednesday is a tough one, a reality acknowledged even by those depending on a solution.
"I can't see a way out of it for the state," Vapnar said.
Paying: State's unpaid bills could more than double in the next 5 years, watchdog group says
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