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Bill backlog brings criticism from comptroller

January 8, 2018 GMT

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza has a chart she likes to show people. It’s a simple graph, charting the growth of the Illinois general fund backlog over time – money due to nursing homes, colleges, social service providers, local governments and other organizations across the state.

The graph starts in 2011, with Illinois facing nearly $8 billion in unpaid bills. The backlog decreased steadily over former Gov. Pat Quinn’s second term, reaching $5 billion by the time Gov. Bruce Rauner took office. Under Rauner, it climbed again to a high of almost $17 billion.

“I’ve never said Rauner created this mess,” Mendoza said, looking over the chart on her Thursday visit to the Daily Journal offices, “but what he did, indisputably, is triple the bill backlog.”

Mendoza, a Democrat, already had a long career in politics when she decided to run for comptroller in a 2016 special election against Rauner appointee Leslie Munger. In 2001, she began her career as an Illinois state representative at only 28 years old, then moved on to serve as city clerk of Chicago from 2011 to 2016. During her time in the Legislature, Mendoza learned the importance of forming cross-party relationships. By the time she became comptroller in December, she was ready.

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Without a budget in fiscal years 2016, 2017 and part of 2018, the most recent crisis was the longest in the state’s history, forcing anyone who receives funding from state agencies to cut down on services.

The first step was to essentially refinance the debt by selling billions of dollars of bonds, avoiding late bill payments of up to 12 percent interest in favor of an interest rate of about 3.8 percent despite the state’s low credit rating. It was a victory for Mendoza, who had publicly pressured the governor’s office to follow through and issue bonds.

“Every day, we put out money but we’re only getting more bills in,” Mendoza said. “There’s potentially going to have to be another round of bonding, but the market responded well to the first because they gave us a rate of 3.7 percent. Nobody in our office or in the governor’s office thought we would get below 4 percent.”

Then, Mendoza threw her support behind the Debt Transparency Act, using what she learned in the Legislature to get bipartisan support for the bill, which required state agencies to forward monthly reports to the comptroller’s office detailing the agency’s backlog and interest payments. Rauner vetoed the bill, but his veto was overturned unanimously in the house and nearly unanimously in the Senate in a showing of bipartisan support. State Rep. Lindsay Parkhurst voted nay on the bill, along with 40 other representatives, but was absent when the veto was overruled.

Along the way, Mendoza, who is running for re-election this year, has made an enemy of the governor. While the governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday, he previously had this to say about the subject:

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“The inclination to provide more transparency about the state of our finances is a good one. Unfortunately, this legislation more closely resembles an attempt by the comptroller to micromanage executive agencies than an attempt to get the information most helpful to the monitoring of state government,” Rauner wrote in his August message vetoing the bill.

He’s called the bill a form of “political manipulation” and Mendoza a “puppet” for controversial House Speaker Michael Madigan, a charge Mendoza refutes by pointing to her first, unsuccessful run for the Legislature against a Madigan-backed candidate.

“I’m very proud of my record as a legislator, and over time, I think the speaker saw I’m my own person,” Mendoza said of her relationship with the speaker. “I’m feisty, and I can build a bipartisan coalition, which you don’t usually see.

“My beef is with the governor because I think he’s a failed governor who didn’t lead the state, and he’s incompetent and frankly incapable of working with other people,” she later added.

Though the debt transparency has made Mendoza’s job easier, she cautions people not to be too optimistic yet. Illinois still faces the worst budget crisis in the nation, with its credit rating hovering above the dreaded “junk” status that signals investments would be risky. Alongside trying to improve the state’s finances, Mendoza has been traveling, talking to service providers across Illinois and asking them to spend carefully should a budget not be passed for 2019.

“It’s not fun when you hear about someone being disconnected from a ventilator because we haven’t paid our bills or a dentist who had to close shop after 20 years,” she said. “Illinois is so anti-business, it’s not funny.”