Our View: Debtor in denial

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017 4:49 p.m. CDT
Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza speaks with The Herald-News in Joliet on the Debt Transparency Act on Wednesday.

Illinois state government is behaving like a debtor in denial: Trying not to pay too much attention to financial details because the story they tell is too depressing.

Comptroller Susana Mendoza, whose job it is to pay the state’s bills, says her office is forced to estimate the state’s backlog of unpaid bills, which it now pegs as just short of $16 billion. State law attaches a 1 percent monthly penalty to bills more than 90 days past due; these fees are estimated at $900 million, Mendoza says.

State law only requires agencies to report on Oct. 1 of each year the aggregate amount of bills being held on the previous June 30. This data arrives as an outdated picture of the state’s financial situation, which grows worse as each month passes, forcing the comptroller guess at the state’s true financial situation.

Mendoza says at least $7.5 billion in bills are being held by individual state agencies rather than sent to her office. There is a chance that some of those unpaid bills, perhaps as much as $1.2 billion worth, are not included anywhere in the state budget.

Mendoza’s office pushed for a new law, House Bill 3649, The Debt Transparency Act, which would require the state to report monthly on the amount of unpaid bills owed by state agencies and the budget appropriations that will cover them.

In other words, the state should be required to report what it owes to creditors, how much it owes in late-payment fees, and what money is budgeted to pay those bills.

Although the proposal passed both the state House (70-40) and Senate (37-16) with bipartisan support, Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed the measure. Rauner said monthly reporting on state finances would be burdensome and “yield decreasing marginal information.”

This justification does not hold water. Businesses large and small have the technology to track their monthly obligations and the state should be no different. What’s more, given that the state’s debt disturbingly is far into the billions, the information would seem to be quite consequential.

The public deserves an up-to-date accounting of the state of government finances, unpleasant though it may be.

This measure had bipartisan support in the House, where eight Republicans, including Rep. Bob Pritchard and Rep. David McSweeney voted yes.

“This is a fiscal issue that’s about good government,” McSweeney said. “I was surprised that the governor vetoed it and I’m definitely going to vote for the override.”

As we have said before, increasing taxes will not solve Illinois’ financial problems. So long as state government continues to live in denial, things will not improve.

An important part of handling a problem is realizing its scope, after all. Perhaps if the mess Illinois is in were clear to more people, things would begin to turn around.

State agencies should cooperate to help the comptroller’s office provide an accurate, monthly picture of what the state owes and how it is going to pay for it. Lawmakers should vote to override Rauner’s veto later this year.