Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger is in a pickle.
It’s Munger’s job to pay the state’s bills, without any control over how much money the state takes in or how it spends it.
She wants to be viewed as an independent arbiter of the state’s finances, as was her predecessor, the late Judy Baar Topinka.
Yet, as a first-year appointee of Gov. Bruce Rauner who has already declared her intention to seek election, Munger is finding her efforts at neutrality complicated by her alliance with — and dependence upon — the Republican governor.
All that would be problematic enough under normal circumstances, but as Munger warned Wednesday, the state’s backlog of unpaid bills is rapidly growing out of control again.
What she didn’t say is that it’s put her in danger of being the one left holding the bag.
“This is clearly a recipe for disaster,” Munger said, referring to the current financial crisis in which the state is continuing to spend — based on court orders, consent decrees and other legal requirements — at the same clip as a year ago, despite no longer having the revenue from the state’s temporary income tax increase to pay for it.
It’s potentially politically disastrous for Munger as well, which she learned recently when she was cast as the villain for the state’s failure to pay agencies that house and provide services to thousands of developmentally disabled individuals.
Facing a possible contempt of court finding, Munger quickly made the overdue payments and tried to chalk it up to a misunderstanding.
But she warned Wednesday such problems could arise again as the state faces cash-flow shortages caused by its failure to enact a budget.
Munger’s appearance before reporters in Chicago made good sense from a governmental standpoint: public officials in Illinois can’t sound the alarm often enough about the mess that’s being created by the state continuing to spend without a budget.
But it also made good political sense for her to get in front of the issue to educate the public about what is happening before she becomes the fall guy.
With Illinois in its third month of operating without a spending blueprint, the state’s $6 billion backlog of unpaid bills will exceed $8.5 billion by the end of December if nothing is done soon, Munger said.
The figure could actually be closer to $12 billion if you count another $4.3 million annually in expenses for which no bills will be submitted until a budget is in place, she told reporters at a Chicago news conference.
The state’s bill backlog topped more than $9 billion in 2010 before the state’s temporary income tax increase was enacted. With the additional revenue, the backlog had been reduced to about $3.5 billion before the tax increase was allowed to expire.
Although there is no budget, Munger said the state continues to pay 90 percent of its bills, albeit slowly.
While that may sound like a good thing, Munger said, it’s a huge problem, because the state doesn’t have the revenue to spend at the same pace as it did a year ago when the income tax increase was still in effect.
I should note that while both Rauner and Munger act as if they are chafing under the court orders that account for much of the spending, they were the ones who went to court to make sure state employees continue to be paid during the impasse.
That eliminated a major pressure point to force Rauner and Illinois Democrats to come to a deal on a budget.
On Wednesday, Munger tried to walk a line between Rauner and the Legislature, calling on both sides to find “common ground.”
But when pressed by reporters, Munger took Rauner’s side in the conflict, saying she supports his efforts to win pro-business concessions to “grow the economy” before he agrees to a budget that requires a tax increase.
“We cannot tax our way out of this,” said Munger, refusing to endorse restoring the income tax increase in contrast to Topinka who campaigned on doing so.
Munger will always be “Rauner’s handpicked comptroller,” as we commonly identify her. She might want to get used to sharing the blame.
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