Without a budget, courts step in to force state to pay bills

Without a budget, courts step in to force state to pay bills
Illinois State Capitol Flickr/Matt Turner
Without a budget, courts step in to force state to pay bills
Illinois State Capitol Flickr/Matt Turner

Without a budget, courts step in to force state to pay bills

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and state lawmakers remain at an impasse over the state budget.

But over the last few weeks, the courts have repeatedly stepped in—telling the state, budget or no budget, it has to pay for certain things, pay some bills.

The result of that: The state is, bit by bit, forcibly reverting back to some of its budget from last fiscal year — which happens to be a budget that nobody wants.

Without a budget, here’s Illinois’ situation: Money can come in. But the rules about how the state can spend it are unclear.

When last year’s state budget expired on July 1, everyone knew certain state business wouldn’t stop: There are laws that say prisons can’t close and the state police can’t call it quits.
But there were lots of other things that nobody knew whether the state could continue to fund.

Can the state still fund foster care without a budget? What about state parks or the DMV?

Over and over again these last few weeks, the state has been in court to sort these things out.

Foster care, for example, the courts said the state had to pay. Same for treatment for adults with developmental disabilities.

This week it was Medicaid, funding healthcare for the poor. And singling out how this Medicaid situation played out is important—because it’s a good example of how having no budget is hurting the state; how it’s making a bad situation even worse.

Medicaid is one of the biggest budget lines in Illinois: More than $7 billion. Hospitals, clinics and patients all over the state depend on that money.

So, it’s not surprising that lawyers went to court—wanting a judge to force the to state to keep Medicaid going in Cook County.

“We need to increase access to care not decrease it,” said John Bouman, an attorney with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, who brought the lawsuit against the state, hoping to force Medicaid payments.

Bouman and others argued that if the funding didn’t come through, hospitals would close. People couldn’t get treated.

“You have to keep the whole system going as if there’s no budget impasse in order to ensure that the children have access to care,” Bouman explained.

The court agreed: A federal judge ordered the state to continue paying Medicaid in Cook County.

Because there’s no current budget to guide Medicaid spending, the state was has been ordered to keep spending on Medicaid according to last year’s budget.

And the thing about that is last year’s budget was widely accepted to be awful.

“Cobbled together. It was in overdraft,” said Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Last year’s budget was complicated, in part, because halfway through, when Rauner won the governorship, he let the income tax rate go down. Meaning: lower taxes for residents, and less money for the state.

Nobody in Springfield thinks last year’s budget process should be used as a guide for how the state spends money now. But with each of these court interventions, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Simply put: because leaders can’t make a new spending plan, the state has to use last year’s faulty one—which appears to make things tumultuous on pretty much all fronts.

“Oh, the whole thing sucks,” Mooney said.

He remains convinced that Rauner and Democrats will reach a budget…there just might be snow on the ground by the time it’s decided.

Meanwhile, the court interventions, like the Medicaid one, keep piling up: DCFS, foster care and a bunch of other things — are all being funded according to an outdated budget that everyone thinks is trouble.

Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.