Ap-Photo-IL-Payment-Backlogphoto courtesy of The Associated Press
As the state of Illinois continues to chip away at its $6 billion backlog of overdue payments, Southwestern Illinois school districts and hospitals - some of the state’s largest vendors - are still owed more than $1 million each.
   A “surprise” one-time surge of state income tax revenues received in April helped stem the tide, but Illinois still owes a staggering $6 billion worth of payments to tens of thousands of vendors statewide, including those in Southwestern Illinois.
   Before an additional $1.3 billion came in during the month of April, the backlog had grown to more than $8 billion.
   Among those is Collinsville’s public school district. As of June 24, the state of Illinois owed Collinsville CUSD $1.42 million from the General Fund. Superintendent Bob Green, who heads the district of more than 6,300 students, says that in his 30-plus years of working in education, he’s never seen a more dire financial scenario.
   “We’ve spent the last couple of years in deficit spending and we’ve taken action this spring to correct that,” said Green. “Unfortunately, we’ve cut approximately 19.5 full-time-equivalent positions in our district. When someone has retired, instead of being able to consider a candidate with experience, we’re forced to look at who is going to cost us the least. And in negotiations with the (teachers’) union, it’s hard to get an agreement on the table when there’s no money to put on the table. It’s as tough as I’ve ever seen. Do you do what’s best for the kids, or do you do what’s best for the bank account? The continued, long-range effects of what’s going on at the state level are going to be devastating,” he added.
   Green remembers back in the 1980s when the state of Illinois - and specifically Southwestern Illinois - endured a brief period of time, four years, when school districts did not receive any new money from the state. “But that was different. We weren’t cut. And we were being paid on time, for the most part,” he said. “Also, the state mandates weren’t what they are now. When you have healthcare costs that are continually going up, utility costs going up, fuel costs going up, plus an increasing number of state mandates - even if they’re good mandates - being imposed upon educators - they take time and money to put into place. And we just don’t have it,” said Green.

   Business and industry leaders are hailing the passage of Illinois’ fracking law as a model for the rest of the nation to emulate. Environmental groups say the compromise legislation was a compromise since a moratorium wasn’t achievable.
   On June 17th, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law SB 1715, legislation that secures protections associated with high-volume, horizontal drilling known as fracturing or fracking. The process of extracting natural gas from shale reservoir formations, which has been around since the 1950s, has gained great momentum the past year or two but had been unregulated. Because Southern Illinois sits atop a good portion of the New Albany Shale formation, fracking was already drawing scores of landowners, drillers and investors to the state for a piece of the action. Experts estimate the state could be home to as many as eight trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves.
AP-Photo-Fracking-Uniquephoto courtesy of The Associated Press
Ferne Clyffe State Park in Southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest is home to part of the New Albany Shale formation, a major source of natural gas and a popular site for fracking. In mid-June, Illinois enacted a fracking law to regulate the process and provide protections for landowners.
   Given this scenario, Illinois legislators grappled over the past two years to carve out an agreeable bill to satisfy the oil and gas industry, environmentalists and both political parties - one that would give citizens a proactive voice in the process, particularly concerning potential threats to surface and groundwater contamination.
   Co-sponsor and State Sen. Michael Frerichs (D-Champaign), who teamed with Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion)on the bill, says SB 1715 represents the most comprehensive set of fracking regulations yet among any of the U.S. states and includes staunch protections for surface and groundwater quality. “I’m proud to say these are the strongest, most effective drilling safeguards enacted by any state in the nation,” Frerichs said.
   U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, a member of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, says Illinois’ new fracking law spells progress in an effort to empower states with the ability to balance the interests and needs of business and industry while protecting citizens and the environment, rather than asking the US EPA to intervene and exert its authority. “We’re always seeking to make the argument here in Washington that the states are well qualified to strike that balance on their own and to be accountable to their communities without the EPA stepping in,” said Shimkus. “This is really a market-driven opportunity. If you involve the EPA and create additional layers of cost and liability, the individuals who are raising the capital to explore, identify and recover these natural resources are going to go elsewhere. It’s a fine balance, but it’s one that the states are capable of achieving,” he added.