Metro-East News

Social service agencies sue state to be paid

A coalition of Illinois-based human and social service agencies has filed a lawsuit in St. Clair County against the state to force timely payments for services provided under a contract dating back to July 1, 2016.

The lawsuit, filed by Pay Now Illinois, has 37 plaintiffs, including Caritas Family Solutions, based in Belleville; Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities, a statewide organization that operates in southern Illinois; and Children’s Home and Aid, a statewide organization that has offices in Granite City, Belleville and East St. Louis.

The suit, against Gov. Bruce Rauner and Comptroller Susana Mendoza, was filed in St. Clair County, where in 2015 a judge ruled in a lawsuit brought forward by AFSCME that the state must pay state employees on a timely basis, even though there wasn’t a budget or agreed-to appropriations between the General Assembly and the governor.

State employees have not missed a paycheck since the start of the budget impasse on July 1, 2015, the coalition said.

“Precedent has been set with the ruling in St. Clair County that required state workers be paid; we feel our constitutional claims are as strong, or possibly stronger,” Pay Now Illinois Chair Andrea Durbin said. “We are hoping for the same success so that we can get paid what is owed us, and we can be certain of getting paid in the future. After all, why should state workers be paid, but not state contractors? The state must provide assurance that it is a responsible business partner.”

The governor’s office said it had no comment on Thursday’s filing. The comptroller’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mendoza, a Democrat, pointed the finger at the Republican governor.

“Social service providers would not have to file these lawsuits — and the state’s most vulnerable would not have to go without services — if the governor fulfilled his constitutional duty to propose a balanced budget the General Assembly could then act on,” Mendoza said in a statement.

The Pay Now Illinois suit in St. Clair County claims the adoption of the six-month stopgap bill, the state paid some outstanding contracts for fiscal year 2016, but did so by reducing or terminating funding of contracts for fiscal year 2017.

“The so-called ‘stopgap’ bill has unlawfully reduced or capped the liability of the state to plaintiffs on the contracts for services in fiscal year 2017 — contracts that had been agreed to in writing or orally before (the stopgap budget) was adopted on June 30, 2016,” the suit said.

According to the coalition, the state not paying contracts has forced social service agencies to face “cash squeezes,” and more than 40 percent of the plaintiffs have used up or are using their lines of credit.

Pay Now Illinois also says most of the agencies involved in the suit have reduced staffing and even reduced services.

Not paying for work that has been carried out “is causing permanent and not temporary damage” to the agencies and “irreparable injury to the client populations that have lost services and damaged the credibility of the plaintiff organizations with many vulnerable and emotionally troubled persons,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also names James Dimas, secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services; Jan Bohnhof, director of the Illinois Department on Aging; and John R. Baldwin, acting director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, as defendants in the suit.

“We are suing to get paid, but also to protect the integrity of contracts in the State of Illinois,” Durbin said. “Right now, nobody doing business with the state of Illinois can be certain of getting paid. And that is no way to run a business. If the state can get away with not paying our contracts, does any contract holder have security that the State’s word is good?”

This is the second time Pay Now Illinois has filed a lawsuit against the governor and others seeking payment on overdue bills. The first suit, filed in May 2016, is now on appeal, after a Cook County judge dismissed the coalition’s claim.

Joseph Bustos: 618-239-2451, @JoeBReporter

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat