‘Everything on table’ for DNR funding

Springfield — Proverbial warning shots fired into the air nearly 10 years ago are again being referenced by DNR officials and employees up and down the state.

Beware: Unless new revenue sources are identified, sportsmen will notice the effects.

The agency’s budget is taking yet another cut – a proposed 10 percent whack in 2013 – and this time the resulting wounds will be deep.

“Our agency has essentially been cut in half over the last decade,” DNR Director Marc Miller told more than 125 people at a public meeting at John A. Logan College in Carterville earlier this month. “There are a lot of ramifications. People need to be engaged and involved so we can find a solution.”

According to DNR, the proposed cut would mean the agency could start the next fiscal year with a deficit of $18 million to $22 million. Revenue – or lack of – is the biggest problem facing DNR. Identifying and implementing new sources of dollars has been an ongoing project for Miller, who took over the director position in 2009.

Expenses have not declined at the same rate as DNR funding. The budget 10 years ago was north of $106 million. This fiscal year it was about $49 million.

DNR’s staff rolls have gone from 2,600 to roughly 1,200 over the same time period.

“Seventy-seven percent of our budget is spent on operations,” Miller said. “We have cut travel and communications. Our money is going to people. Everything else is down to slivers.”

Miller’s bottom-line look: “You’re going to see a noticeable difference in the maintenance. It won’t be the fault of the people that work for us. It will be because we don’t have the resources.”

Already, DNR is making cuts that will be noticed. Earlier this month it announced it would cease publication of Outdoor Illinois, its monthly magazine.

According to Miller and other DNR officials, “Everything is on the table” as options for increasing revenue.

A state parks admission fee proposal has been floating around the Capitol for a few years, but no action has been taken. Such a fee would require support from non-hunters and non-anglers who frequent state parks to hike, birdwatch and camp. Neighbors Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana currently charge park fees.

The agency does have influential backers around the state who are trying to help solve the funding problems. Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, has been meeting with various groups to gather ideas. Those meeting with Mautino include Pheasants Forever and the Sierra Club.

‘’There are a lot of difficult issues on the agenda this spring, so I don’t think anyone can predict for certain whether the process will work or not,’’ Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, said.

In the effort to cut spending, staff at the Capitol have reported that there are some 800 statutory mandates involving DNR. Conservation groups are pointing out that some of those mandates are not essential.

Looking ahead, DNR’s operating budget for next fiscal year could be trimmed to $45 million.

‘’All the groups realize the DNR has a challenge coming up,’’ Mautino, who is working on a bill he hopes to introduce this spring session, told the Chicago Sun-Times. Mautino hopes the proposal he is crafting will result in sustainable funding for DNR.

Miller made it clear that Mautino’s bill will not contain a dedicated sales tax, which has been successful in Missouri.

Otherwise, “Nothing is off the table,” Miller said.

Les Winkeler contributed to this report.

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