Topinka news release: Tax revenue up, but bill triage continues

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka on Wednesday warned that a recent reduction in the state's bill backlog is temporary and implored leaders to continue identifying efficiencies and savings that will allow the state to regain its fiscal footing in the long-term.

Topinka noted that a stronger-than-expected tax season allowed her office to cut the state's bill backlog from $8.5 billion at the start of April to $5.8 billion today. The payment wait time for vendors also was cut dramatically, with the state now paying bills from April 8, as opposed to Dec. 3, 2012 at the start of April.

But Topinka cautioned that the progress will be short-lived, estimating the backlog could again hover around $7.5 billion in August and that prolonged payment delays will return.

"Illinois is the only state in the nation where $5.8 billion in unpaid bills sounds like real progress and one-month payment delays are something to celebrate," Topinka said. "The sad truth is that even with more than a billion dollars in unexpected tax revenue, we owe schools, hospitals, not-for-profits and private businesses in every part of the state - and this is as good as we expect it to get."

The state's bill backlog traditionally fluctuates throughout the year, with the numbers dropping in high-revenue months and growing in leaner seasons. Spring typically proves to be the low benchmark, as residents and businesses make their income tax payments to the government. This year the state benefited from $1.3 billion more than expected in revenue, as taxpayers accelerated transactions to take advantage of 2012 federal tax rates.

But Topinka cautioned that those dollars have already been used to pay down bills to the current level, and the backlog could grow by up to $2 billion within three months. She encouraged state leaders to take those realities into account in the final days of the legislative session.

"Illinois must not let a strong tax season burn a hole in its pocket," Topinka said. "This is not the time for new spending. Just the opposite, we need to use these final days of session to pass the leanest budget possible, and address the long-term challenges facing our state."    

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