Treasurer Dan Rutherford’s Opposition to Legislative Efforts to Pay State Bills to Hospitals, Schools, Vendors Draws Criticism

(Springfield, IL) — Illinois’ treasurer cannot stop lawmakers from borrowing billions to pay the state’s backlog of unpaid bills, but he can make it more expensive — and that’s exactly what Dan Rutherford says  he plans to do.

Rutherford on Monday said he cannot support adding to Illinois burgeoning debt.

The first-term Republican treasurer released his own report that states Illinois total debt would cost every household in the state $42,000. Rutherford arrived at the number by adding Illinois’ $140 billion in unfunded pension and health-care liabilities, the state’s $45 billion bond debt, and the nearly $8 billion in unpaid bills.

The treasurer said lawmakers must cut spending and live within their means in order for Illinois to pay off the debt.

“You can’t borrow anymore money,” said Rutherford. “And if I need to send letters to the rating companies to tell them the treasurer of Illinois is opposed to any more borrowing, I’ll go ahead and do that.”

Rutherford said alerting national rating agencies and bond houses could make it more expensive for Illinois to borrow. He said hopes that step would give lawmakers pause before asking for a billion dollars.

And while the state’s treasurer can only stop short-term borrowing, lawmakers are maneuvering to pass a measure through the General Assembly that would bypass any authority Rutherford has.

“I don’t have a vote on (the Senate plan),” said Rutherford. “If it’s long term, I can’t stop it.”

State Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, said Republican and Democratic lawmakers must approve any borrowing, and Rutherford’s approach to handling Illinois’ massive pile of unpaid bills bothers him.

“Right now we’re using school districts, universities, private companies and health-care providers — we’re using them as our credit card,” said Sullivan. “They’re carrying that debt for us.”

Sullivan said he agrees with the treasurer that Illinois does not need to take on any new debt, but paying off old bills is taking care of old debt.

Lawrence Msall, president of the Civic Federation in Chicago, said unless Sullivan and other lawmakers cut state spending, all the borrowing in the world won’t erase the backlog.

“By borrowing instead of cutting, lawmakers are ensuring that there will be that much less to spend on schools and health care in the future,” Msall said.

The Civic Federation, which advocates for improvements in government efficiency and tax policy, according to its website, issued a report earlier this month that calls for state lawmakers to trim billions from the state budget.

Msall said that if Illinois could trim $5 billion from Gov. Pat Quinn‘s budget of $35 billion to about $30 billion and grow at a moderate pace, the state would be out of fiscal peril in three years.

Rutherford said he is not trying to issue threats or ultimatums with his anti-borrowing message; rather he wants lawmakers to know he is serious about ending the state’s “borrowing addiction.”

Benjamin Yount, Illinois Statehouse News

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