Illinois ends fiscal year $6.1 billion in red

Illinois finished the fiscal year with a smaller-than-projected backlog of unpaid bills thanks to a spring influx in unanticipated tax revenue, but those gains will be short-lived due to the state’s unresolved pension problem, the comptroller warned Monday.

In fact, a $1.3 billion April windfall in unexpected revenue from residents’ sales of assets before new tax laws took effect will be erased within weeks, ensuring that vendors who provide some of the state’s most important services will continue to endure long waits to get paid, Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said in a statement.

“Make no mistake, the `April surprise’ is history,” she said.

Illinois ended the fiscal year Sunday $6.1 billion in debt, and that figure is expected to grow to $7.5 billion by August and $9 billion by December, Topinka’s office estimated. The backlog typically ebbs and flows throughout the fiscal year, spiking before tax receipts come in during the spring. The governor’s budget office estimates that the bill backlog will be at $5.9 billion at this time next year. Topinka called that estimate “awfully optimistic.”

“From his lips to God’s ears,” she said of Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

Topinka said putting the surprise revenue toward unpaid bills allowed the state to end the fiscal year in a better shape than it otherwise would have, but it doesn’t change the overall fiscal picture.

“That windfall allowed us to aggressively pay down bills and provide some relief to vendors, but it did nothing to address the state’s systemic budget problems,” she said.

Saddled with an unfunded pension liability that stands at around $100 billion, Illinois for several years has been delaying the payment of billions of dollars in bills for months at a time. This has caused schools, hospitals and social service agencies to borrow money, cut jobs and services and take on personal debt.

Quinn has given lawmakers a July 9 deadline to agree to a plan to deal with the pension mess, which was caused by decades of lawmakers skipping or shorting payments to state retirement funds. But members of a committee tasked with finding a solution have said that timeline is unlikely.

Abdon Pallasch, the governor’s budget spokesman, noted, the state’s yearly pension costs have risen from $1.8 billion in 2008 to $6 billion this year.

“The best thing that any legislator could do to eliminate the backlog of bills is vote to put a comprehensive pension reform bill on the governor’s desk and stop the bleeding,” Pallasch said.

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