- Associated Press - Friday, August 28, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) - The state of Illinois asked a federal judge Friday not to hold it in contempt for missing a recent court-ordered deadline to pay services providers for the disabled, saying compliance should “not mean doing the impossible” amid one of the nation’s worst budgetary crises.

That plea came in a U.S. court filing in Chicago days after Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman told officials to explain why they hadn’t met a deadline she set for last week for some payments. She could rule next week on holding Illinois in contempt based on the explanation.

The filing by lawyers representing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration and the state comptroller said the state has made millions of dollars in payments to providers, including in recent days. But it also noted the state’s account falls short by at least $300 million each month.

The filing strikes a chord of desperation in explaining the cash-strapped state faces competing court orders and legal obligations, while also insisting that it’s doing the best it can to comply with them all.

“Because of the state’s cash flow problems, the comptroller must evaluate on a daily basis the amount of cash on hand and determine which payments may be made,” it said, adding, “It is not possible for the state to commit to making each of many specific payments on specific days.”

At an emergency hearing Wednesday, Coleman scolded officials. She cut short her vacation to preside over the hearing, she said, and told lawyers a budget crisis doesn’t give Illinois the right to “flout” orders meant to ensure at-risk individuals got the services they need.

The filing asks that Coleman’s standing order for payments according to a strict timetable of deadlines should be altered.

“To the extent the court’s August 18 order may be read to force the state to prioritize payments differently than it would in the ordinary course, the order should be modified to clarify that compliance does not mean doing the impossible,” the filing said.

As an example, the filing says payments due to the Intermediate Care Facilities for the Developmentally Disabled for August cannot be processed by Sept. 4 - as ordered - “because those claims are not even received until mid-September at the earliest.”

The filing asks the judge to change the Sept. 4 deadline to Oct. 31 at the earliest.

Coleman gave advocacy groups involved in the case until Monday to respond to the state’s filing, after which she would decide the issue of contempt. Barry Taylor, a lawyer for Equip for Equality, said Friday that he is reviewing the state’s filing.

“Our goal remains to assure that our clients are able to maintain their homes during this budget impasse,” he said in an email.

Without a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, there is no state spending authority, but billions of dollars have been obligated. That’s because of federal court orders such as the one agreed to in 2011 that covers more than 10,000 developmentally disabled people needing day-to-day help in community homes or larger facilities.

Coleman had earlier ordered the comptroller to pay the community living providers by Aug. 18. But when the money didn’t arrive, the providers went back for Wednesday’s hearing. An attorney for the comptroller’s office, John Stevens, suggested at the hearing that the problem, among other things, was cash flow.

The comptroller’s office told Coleman it paid $76 million toward the bill this week. But Taylor has said that doesn’t cover all the money owed.

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Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm .

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