St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Illinois can't even pay office utility bills for legislators

Friday, September 03, 2010

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. • State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld was in session in Springfield earlier this year when he got a call from his secretary back in his district office.

She was calling from her cell phone because the district office phones, which are paid for by the state of Illinois, had been disconnected for nonpayment.

"That was the first time," recalled Luechtefeld, R-Okawville.

His office phones were later cut off again, with the state still months behind in paying for the service. He's now getting renewed threats from the phone company of a third cutoff. "It's laughable," he said, "but it's not."

It's the same story at the district offices of Illinois' elected legislators across the state: Phone, utilities, garbage and rent payments months behind, prompting a monthly flurry of terse late notices and cutoff threats to offices with the state emblem on the doors.

Of course, in a state where teachers are getting laid off, hospitals are struggling and small businesses are failing because the state isn't paying its bills, the office budget plight of a relative handful of politicians isn't going to cause anyone to take to the streets.

But the news this week of a northern Illinois legislator who was forced to shut down her district office because the state had stiffed her landlord for so long certainly drives home the depth of Illinois' $11 billion budget crisis.

"It's helped me focus on the fact that it's not a manufactured crisis," said Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville — who took over payment of his district office's garbage collection bill after the waste company threatened to withdraw service because the state wasn't paying. "It's real."

Illinois legislators keep offices in or around the Capitol in Springfield, and also have district offices back home. The state allots $69,409 per year for the district office expenses of each House member, which goes toward salaries for office staff, rent, utilities, supplies and related costs. For senators — who have larger districts and often maintain more than one district office — the annual allotment is $83,063.

Lawmakers have often complained that the annual allotment is too small, given the need for clerical workers, professional office space and other significant expenses. However, the current problem of deadbeat district offices isn't about the budgeted amount, but rather about the state's cash flow problems, which stem from a deficit that's roughly 50 percent the size of the state's entire regular operating budget.

It's the same reason schools around the state are being shorted millions of dollars in scheduled state payments, and that companies that have done work on contract for the state aren't getting paid for it. There's no dispute about what's owed to any of them — the state simply can't send what it doesn't have.

Lawmakers have to submit vouchers for their rental bills, utilities and other expenses for payment, just like any other entity that's seeking money from the state. Essentially, they have to get in line — and the line is long.

"We have 220,000 vouchers sitting in our office waiting to be paid, because we don't have the money to pay them," said Alan Henry of the Illinois comptroller's office, which is responsible for cutting the checks. Those backlogged vouchers as of this week totaled about $4.5 billion in late bills, which are paid as money becomes available to the state from taxes, fees and other sources.

As of this week, Henry said, all lawmakers' office rental vouchers had been paid up through April, "and some through June" — meaning all the offices are going on at least their third month without making a rental payment.

That's the situation that led state Rep. Sandy Cole, a Republican from suburban Chicago, to announce this week she was packing up and moving her district office, in an agreement with a landlord who had had enough.

"He is just a small-business guy who owns one building. ... The state is usually 90 days in arrears" on rent, Cole said in an e-mail explaining the move. Her new office will be in an office building with a landlord who "owns many office buildings with many (government) officials and can financially manage this payment arrangement."

It hasn't come to that for most other legislators. But interviews with several downstate lawmakers this week yielded stories of eviction threats, utility cutoffs and some humble negotiating by those elected officials to keep the lights on.

"We get collection calls every month" from the utility companies, said state Sen. John O. Jones, R-Mount Vernon. He said the electric bill for his district office is several months behind, and that the only thing preventing a cutoff is that "Ameren knows they'll eventually get their money."

Black, the Danville Republican, has managed to keep the phones on in his district office by repeatedly explaining the situation: "My legislative director has to call AT&T; every month." He has been able to remain in his office despite months-late rent payments "because my landlord is a friend of 40 years' standing."

Black doesn't have that kind of relationship with his waste hauler, which last year threatened to cut off service to his office if he didn't catch up on the service bill that the state hadn't been paying.

"I didn't want to take the stuff home with me," said Black, referring to the garbage generated by the office. So he finally gave up on vouchering the state for the garbage bill, and just pays it from his campaign fund.

State Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, says his district office phone has been cut off one time so far for nonpayment. His bigger concern is that his office can't charge office supplies to a standing account with a major supplier anymore, leaving it with fewer options and a more expensive office supply bill. The major office supply chains "will not take credit (purchases) from the state anymore."

"We have to get our fiscal house in order. It's just ridiculous," Bost said. "What message does it send?"