By Meredith Colias
Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed state budget would continue to chip away at Illinois' overdue bills, but he hopes lawmakers will agree to eliminate corporate tax breaks and use the proceeds to pay down some of the state’s current backlog.
Quinn said that under his plan, $2 billion in late bills would be paid down during the current fiscal year and the next. His budget projections estimate that the backlog, which is now more than $8 billion, would be $6.8 billion by the end of Fiscal Year 2014.
He proposed further measures to make a larger dent in the backlog.
Quinn called on lawmakers to close corporate loopholes, which he estimated would bring the state $455 million per year in revenue, and place the money into a special fund to be used only to pay past obligations.
“Suspending corporate loopholes like these until the bills are paid will be good for our vendors and good for our economy,” he said in his budget address. “Why should we give costly, ineffective loopholes to some of the biggest and most profitable corporations on Earth when he have bills to pay?”
Doug Whitley, of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, opposes Quinn’s proposal.
“I find it troubling that on one hand, the governor wants to improve the business climate ... [and then tells business], ‘Oh, and by the way, how about turning around and kicking in [more taxes],’” he said.
Members of the House seemed equally unreceptive. Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat who chairs the House Revenue Committee, said it would be a nonstarter in the chamber. Those working on the budget in the House hope to pay down a portion of the bills in the same gradual way they have over the last two years. “We dedicated about $1.5 billion toward old bills last year, and we’re prepared and anticipate trying to do something similar to that this year. And we have to make that one of our spending priorities. But we’re living within reality.”
Republican leaders said they support making cuts and using the savings to chip away at the backlog over several years.
“The only way to do this is to spend less money then we have coming in and begin to pay the bills off,” said Sen. Christine Radogno, a Lemont Republican and Senate minority leader .
As far as closing loopholes, House Minority Leader Rep. Tom Cross, an Oswego Republican, said, “That’s not going to be on our table, but other ways to pay it, we’re clearly open to that.”
Rep. Ester Golar, a Chicago Democrat, said the focus should be on those who are waiting on payments from the state.
“We have to pay the individuals who have not been paid,” she said. Golar said she plans to introduce a bill calling for the state to borrow money to pay down the backlog. She proposed $4 billion in borrowing at the end of the last legislative session. Quinn has backed such plans in the past but has since moved away from them after they failed to gain traction with lawmakers.
Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka’s office manages payments to vendors, and documents in quarterly financial reports how the backlog is being paid. “It’s our office’s job to patch. We use baling wire and bubblegum to hold the whole place together, and I’m now looking at the possibility of Silly Putty,” she said.
Topinka said the bills needed to be prioritized. “Legally we can’t declare bankruptcy, so we’ve got to make something happen. As long as this goes on, we’re going to keep taking bad credit ratings, the costs [of borrowing] are going to go up. It has to get done now.”
Topinka said another Quinn proposal to cut 5 percent from the budget of the General Assembly and constitutional officers and redirect it to the backlog is not feasible. “We’ve already cut 10 [percent] out of our [office]. We’re at 1997 operations in our office. So it can’t be done. It can’t be done.”