If you plan on doing business with the state of Illinois, you'd better learn to beg _ preferably to an influential politician.
With the state billions of dollars behind in paying its debt, collecting on unpaid bills can be a torturous, confusing process in which how fast you get paid may depend on who goes to bat for you.
After receiving "hardship" appeals from businesses and community organizations awaiting payment from the state, Gov. Pat Quinn's budget office asked to speed up the payment of $1.1 billion on more than 21,000 vouchers in the last 13 months. That's an average of 83 each business day, according to an Associated Press analysis of state records.
But the rules for who gets paid and how quickly are not always followed. Even state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, whose office is in charge of writing the checks, acknowledges the system isn't fair.
Nearly 1,000 pages of emails and letters to the state, obtained by the AP under the Freedom of Information Act and supported by other documents and interviews, showed that businesses and nonprofits backed by lawmakers or others with clout _ Democrat or Republican _ often get paid more quickly than others.
"You're supposed to be able to write and tell someone, `We have a problem here,' but it's not working either," said Moira Baker of Mary and Tom Leo Associates, a child welfare agency. The bills "just stack up."
After months of waiting for phone calls to be returned and on the "verge of having to stop services," Baker contacted Senate President John Cullerton, who represents the district where her agency is located. When Cullerton put the association's request on paper, money flowed to her within days.
Similarly, cash quickly followed queries from House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie and her Senate counterpart, James Clayborne. The responses included money for bills newer than what the state considers to be a hardship. Some of the bills were submitted just days earlier.
"Is any of this fair? None of it is fair," said Topinka, a Republican. "No matter what we do, we're going to have to juggle."
To help them determine who needs it the most, Topinka said her staff relies on what "a legislator or an agency director tells us. I don't know another way to get at it."
Quinn's budget office encourages people to go to a website and fill out a form if they want to claim a financial hardship, but businesses can also call or write directly. The website says bills must be at least 90 days old to be considered for hardship payment and that only bills from the fiscal year that ended in June are getting attention while the state catches up.
But some vendors get newer bills paid. Budget spokeswoman Kelly Kraft called the 90-day mark "a guideline" and said bills from this fiscal year can be paid if they're for "vital state operations."
In an interview with the AP, Quinn expressed no dissatisfaction with a system he said predates his time in office.
"You have to have a process where people who are in dire straits can appeal and ask for expedited payment," the Democrat told the AP. "But anyone is able to do that."
Some vendors, however, aren't aware the expedited process exists. Glenda Farkas, executive director of the West Central Illinois Center for Independent Living in Quincy, said she struggled with late state payments for three years before finding out about the hardship process in July. A letter to her state representative and senator helped her receive her payments for May and June, but nothing since.
"It was a temporary Band-Aid fix," she said. "It's still a month-to-month struggle."
Though some nonprofits received payments within days after appealing with just a hardship letter and no apparent written help from lawmakers, records show skids get greased almost immediately when legislators speak up.
Topinka's own legislative liaison, Peg Mosgers, made a plea to the comptroller's bill-payers on July 15 about overdue payments to a nonprofit with clients in Currie's Chicago district. "Barbara Flynn Currie" is underlined and the memo asks, "They can't make payroll. Can we pay something? Let me know and I'll call Currie's office."
But the nonprofit ended up with even more money than it sought. Mosgers indicates that $29,432 was 90 days overdue to FCAN, the Families' and Children's AIDS Network. But three days later when checks were cut, they also included a $93,000 payment that was just over 60 days late and an $11,000 payment submitted earlier that month, despite the rules on how old bills must be to warrant hardship status.
Currie said she typically intervenes when a business or community organization tells her that employee paychecks are in jeopardy. She said she was not aware that in the FCAN case, all its bills were paid, including newer ones.
"We're not asking them for that," Currie said. "We're asking them to make sure these people have enough money to make payroll."
FCAN director Linda Coon has had a professional relationship with Currie and gave the Democratic lawmaker campaign contributions totaling $650a half-dozen years ago. Currie said neither the rapport nor the political gifts played a role.
Topinka spokesman Brad Hahn said the key factor in deciding to pay the bill was that FCAN couldn't pay employees.
Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, wrote Topinka on Aug. 19 about money owed to Mary and Tom Leo Associates. On Aug. 25, the comptroller wrote checks for $120,000, including $52,000 that had just been billed days earlier.
"This would appear to be a case of the Senate president and the state comptroller helping keep the doors open on a small business that provides services," said Cullerton spokesman John Patterson. He said Topinka's staff suggested putting the request in writing.
Baker said she doesn't know Cullerton personally and called his office "out of desperation." Even then, there was a long period of back-and-forth with his office, she said. The money she got will see her through about two more pay periods.
Other legislators also have had success intervening.
A $300,000 bill submitted on July 6 by a Chicago Heights agency was issued on July 20 _ the same day Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Crete, sent a fax to Topinka titled "Hardship!"
More than $258,000 went to an East St. Louis facility just two days after Democratic Sen. James Clayborne's staff sent an email to the governor's office.
Sen. Linda Holmes and Rep. Linda Chapa La Via also got $27,000 for an early childhood center in the Democrats' hometown of Aurora three days after writing a letter.
"When I get a plea, I try to help," Holmes said. "It's the reason a lot of us go into politics, to help and do something."
Hahn insists that each case where a legislator intervened involved a "legitimate urgency" for agencies that were waiting months for payment.
"We don't hand out money haphazardly over here," Topinka said.
To explore a searchable database of the Illinois government's unpaid bills from Sept. 8, go to http://billpay.qconline.com
Associated Press writers Christopher Wills and Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.
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