Metro-East News

Governor, comptroller point fingers at each other over late bill payments

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza
Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza AP

As the state’s bill backlog surpasses $12.5 billion during the ongoing budget impasse, Democratic state Comptroller Susan Mendoza and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner are pointing fingers at each other.

Abdon Pallasch, a spokesman for Mendoza, said there has been a practice of agencies sitting on bills, sending a chunk of bills to the comptroller, and then calling out the comptroller in an effort by the governor’s office to score political points.

When the agencies send over a chunk of bills, Rauner’s office then complains the comptroller doesn’t pay them right away, Pallasch said.

During a meeting with the BND Editorial Board, Mendoza cited a time the governor’s office sent a reporter a copy of a letter addressed to Mendoza, while at the same time complaining how the comptroller’s office had yet to respond.

The letter had yet to arrive at Mendoza’s office, the spokesman said.

“Is this the best of use of the governor’s office, staff and resources?” Pallasch said. “Shouldn’t they be using their energy to pass a budget, instead of scoring headlines against a perceived rival?”

Is this the best of use of the governor’s office, staff and resources? Shouldn’t they be using their energy to pass a budget, instead of scoring headlines against a perceived rival?

Abdon Pallasch, a spokesman for the comptroller’s office

Rauner spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said it’s Mendoza who’s playing political games.

“Instead of the tired partisan attacks and finger-pointing, it would be helpful if Comptroller Mendoza would focus on prioritizing critical state payments,” Demertzis said. “It is disappointing to see an office with a long bipartisan history of being above the fray being used to forward this comptroller’s political agenda.”

The governor’s office in the past has questioned the comptroller’s priorities on which bills are paid and in which order.

Instead of the tired partisan attacks and finger-pointing, it would be helpful if Comptroller Mendoza would focus on prioritizing critical state payments.

Eleni Demertzis, spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce Rauner

Mendoza has said there is a need to get a budget in place to help catch up with the state’s bill backlog.

As an example of the practice, documents released by the comptroller’s office show the Department of Corrections in one instance sat for 11 months on a $54,000 bill from Community Education Center for services provided during the month of January 2016. The comptroller then paid the bill in March of 2017 at a time when it had a higher amount in its coffers as people paid their income taxes.

IDOC sat on a $144,000 bill for services provided in December 2015 for a year. In another instance, a $152,000 bill for services provided in August 2016 was sent to the comptroller’s office on March 8 of this year. The comptroller’s office paid the bill 16 days later.

Services from June 2016 that amounted to almost $31,700 weren’t sent over to the comptroller’s office until March 22 of this year. The comptroller paid the bill two days later.

Pallasch said letters addressed to the comptroller discussing lack of payment are sent to media outlets in an email, before they’re sent to the comptroller. Media outlets then ask the comptroller if the situation is true.

The General Assembly and the governor did agree to a stopgap budget in late June 2016, which covered bills since July 2015 through the end of December 2016. The state has been without an approved appropriation since January, except for education funding.

Mendoza has now been pushing for a better accounting of what’s owed by the state.

She is pushing legislation, which has passed the state House of Representatives, that would require state agencies to provide monthly reports to the comptroller on the amount of bills being held, the liabilities for which there are appropriations and liabilities subject to prompt-payment penalties.

The proposed Debt Transparency Act has been referred to the Assignments Committee in the state Senate.

Agencies are sitting on bills that we don’t know exist.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza

Mendoza’s office said the intent of the legislation would be to reveal any potential financial liabilities and to identify late interest penalties that maybe adding up.

“Agencies are sitting on bills that we don’t know exist,” Mendoza told the BND editorial board.

Some are bills that could be sent and agencies sit on them; some bills are for services that haven’t yet had money appropriated for the work by the General Assembly, but agencies still entered into contracts for the service, said Jamey Dunn, the deputy director of communications for the comptroller’s office.

According to the comptroller’s office, state agencies send bills to the comptroller so payments could be made, after appropriations are made and services are provided.

“However, if the vouchers for payment are held at the agency level due to a lack of appropriation or processing delays, these liabilities remain largely hidden from the comptroller,” according to a briefing paper from Mendoza’s office.

Presently, agencies are only required to report pending bills on Oct. 1 of each year for the total amount of bills being held as of the previous June 30.

“This data, which is ultimately published on the comptroller’s website, is grossly outdated by the time it is received and does not accurately reflect the real-time situation,” the briefing paper said.

Pallasch said the $12.5 billion figure includes the backlog of bills known to the comptroller and an estimate of what is sitting at agencies.

Late-payment interest could be as high as $800 million, which would be in addition to the $12.5 billion already owed, Pallasch said.

Joseph Bustos: 618-239-2451, @JoeBReporter