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Hold state in ‘contempt of court,’ lawyers for developmentally disabled ask

A federal judge will be asked Wednesday to hold the state of Illinois in “contempt of court” for failing to pay its bills.

State Comptroller Leslie Munger’s office says “we simply do not have the funds.”

A top aide to Speaker Mike Madigan’s accused Munger of picking and choosing whom she pays and “misleading the media and the courts.”

“There’s plenty of cash coming in,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said.

Caught in the middle of the latest skirmish in the state’s prolonged, partisan budget battle?

Adults with severe developmental disabilities.

Attorneys representing 10,000 Illinois residents with disabilities filed an emergency motion in federal court on Tuesday asking that the state be held “in civil contempt of court,” for failing to pay service providers’ bills. Some payments have been on hold since July 1.

“Many of these individuals cannot feed, clothe, or toilet themselves or administer critical medication needed on a daily basis,” plaintiffs’ attorneys, represented by Equip for Equality, wrote in the emergency motion.

Munger’s office says it couldn’t make payments on time because of a “severe cash shortage,” but Democrats don’t buy it.

“There’s cash coming in every day. There should be plenty of cash. They’ve been paying various vendors faster than they have for years,” Brown told the Sun-Times. “I’m afraid the comptroller’s office has been misleading the media and the courts.”

Madigan and Gov. Bruce Rauner have been at loggerheads over approving a state budget, since Rauner vetoed what the Democratic-controlled Legislature sent him. Rauner has acknowledged the state needs more revenue but said he wants pro-growth reforms that curb union power before he will agree to any tax increase.

Rauner’s office would not comment for this story and would not say whether it had a role in deciding which vendors were paid in what order.

Brown said Rauner had the option to use his amendatory veto, rather than clear out the entirety of the spending plan.

“That’s the outcome from vetoing all the appropriation bills,” Brown said. “They bungled that and now they have to answer to the federal courts. All on their side of the ball.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the comptroller’s office said it had come up with $71 million in expedited payments to fund at least some of what it owes to a group protected under a federal consent decree.

That is only a partial payment, however.

“We are prepared to explain to the Court that we simply do not have the funds to immediately pay all organizations covered under the existing order and still meet legally required debt and payroll payments,” comptroller spokesman Rich Carter said in a statement. “But we are prioritizing all payments to the best of our ability, with precedence being given to those serving our elderly, children and most vulnerable.”

State Senate President John Cullerton’s office said it is seeking a catalogue of payments made by the comptroller.

“If there is no cash to follow a court order to support vulnerable populations, we need to understand why,” said Rikeesha Phelon.

Attorneys say Illinois is violating a federal court order issued last week compelling the comptroller’s office to pay by Friday money owed for services of those with severe developmental disabilities.

That didn’t happen, leading to the emergency motion, which is scheduled to be heard in Chicago federal court at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday. State records show the state held more than $216 million in cash on hand by the start of the day Friday and ended the day with more than $56.7 million.

“The providers of these essential services are completely dependent upon the funding of the State in order to remain in operation,” Equip for Equality lawyers wrote. “If the State does not timely make the payments required by federal law and the orders entered in this case, numerous providers will immediately close their doors, and thousands of individuals with developmental disabilities will not receive services that are essential to their survival.”

Last week U.S. District Judge Sharon Coleman noted she had already ordered the state to make the payments: “payments due for services provided in July 2015 for any and all Beneficiaries of the Consent Decree for which claims have been submitted as of the date of this Order, the State of Illinois shall process and pay all such claims by August 21, 2015.”

“The Consent Decree and Judge Coleman’s two orders make clear that payment for people with developmental disabilities must be paid,” said Barry C. Taylor, VP for Civil Rights and Systemic Litigation at Equip for Equality. “At tomorrow’s hearing the State will have to explain to the Judge why payments have not been made.”