Illinois, the Deadbeat State

The state of Illinois has a proud heritage, reflected in its various nicknames like The Prairie State and Land of Lincoln, and the official state motto, State Sovereignty, National Union. Its official state flora and fauna include such glories of nature as the monarch butterfly, the violet, the cardinal and the white-tailed deer.

But now, Illinois could undergo a rebranding that will not exactly augment that proud heritage: Illinois, the Deadbeat State.

Illinois has a pile of unpaid bills higher than the Sears Tower in Chicago. And the huge debt has been made worse by a budget crisis soon to enter its second year. As of Tuesday, the state debt had accumulated to more than $7 billion.

Unlike ordinary people who can be evicted for not paying rent, you can’t evict a state for not paying its bills. But you can cut off services … at least theoretically.

That is what the Federal Bureau of Investigation might do. The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the Prairie State and Land of Lincoln owes $3 million to the FBI for processing fingerprints and performing background checks for professional licenses and permits. If the FBI sees fit, it can hand the account over to … the Treasury Department for collection.

While it may seem unkind of the AP to brand Illinois as “the deadbeat state,” we cannot accuse them of inaccurate reporting.

We sympathize with people who, through circumstances beyond their control such as loss of a job, can’t make ends meet. Well-meaning individuals can get caught in a debt trap not of their own making, and name-calling only adds to the pain.

In the case of Illinois, however, the unpaid FBI bill, among others, is to a certain extent of their own making. The fact of the matter is that the money is actually there. The $3 million could easily be covered by a fund of almost $19 millon already set aside for the FBI fingerprint services. But without a budget, a legislative appropriation cannot be made and, as a consequence, no state official has authority to draw on that account to pay the FBI.

The reason the state of Illinois has no budget is politics. More specifically, partisan politics. The Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and the Democrats running the state legislature have not been able to agree on a budget. Rauner is insisting on changes in the law to cut business costs and restrict the power of labor unions. The Democrats have blocked the governor’s proposals, demanding instead that priority be given to spending cuts and tax increases to curb the spiraling deficit.

Meanwhile, the FBI continues to check fingerprints in Illinois. While the Illinois debt is unusual — states rarely fall more than four months behind in payments — the FBI says it has never cut services, and it has not stopped examining Illinois fingerprints.

It’s not just that the accountants at the nation’s leading law enforcement agency are sympathetic to the plight of Illinois. It’s a matter of public safety. The FBI processes some 260,000 sets of Illinois fingerprints annually in criminal background checks for those seeking jobs such as school bus drivers or private detectives or when applying for permits to carry concealed firearms.

They have not failed or defaulted in carrying out their mission “to help protect you, your children, your communities, and your businesses from the most dangerous threats facing our nation — from international and domestic terrorists to spies on U.S. soil …from cyber villains to corrupt government officials … from mobsters to violent street gangs … ”

How long they will go on protecting you from these menaces on every side without getting paid for it remains to be seen. A spokesman for the agency’s Criminal Justice Information Service, Stephen Fischer, said the agency is exploring “alternative collection and processing options” to continue serving Illinois without additional expense. We don’t know what that means, and it’s possible that Mr. Fischer doesn’t either, but it sounds like a responsible thing to say.

What can we learn from this tale of woe?

Well, for one thing, that you don’t have to go to Washington for gridlock. The federal government has no monopoly on partisanship, personality clashes or budgetary impasse. The folks in state government are just as good at these things.

And if the great state of Illinois can get itself into such a miserable fix, despite all its wealth and legal and financial expertise, we can perhaps better understand how ordinary people with much more limited resources can also fall behind in paying their bills.