Funding Illinois DNR not a simple solution

Springfield — She returned a call from a reporter by casually explaining, “Sorry I missed you, but I was out turkey hunting.”

Claudia Emken not only is chair of the DNR Advisory Committee, she’s a hunter from Yates City who has a pretty good handle on challenges facing sportsmen and even bigger challenges facing the agency that manages deer, fish, turkeys, waterfowl and other natural resources.

Simply put: DNR is both hurting for and hunting for revenue.

“We have hunters and fishermen who have been shelling out money in permit fees and licenses, and how much more can we ask from them?” Emken asked. “Nobody wants a tax increase, but where else is the revenue going to come from? It’s a real tough situation for everyone.”

Emken, who also chaired the Conservation Funding Commit­tee of the most recent Illinois Conservation Congress, said she is a realist, which is the same way DNR Director Marc Miller described himself during an interview in mid-April.

“It’s past the fact that we need to cut back, we are and we have cut back,” Miller said, pointing to the closing of Outdoor Illinois Magazine and the shutting down of a private fish stocking program, each which will save the agency $1 million. “It’s time to talk seriously about the budget, and have some serious talks about what has to be done about finding new revenue.”

Along with dollars from annual licensing and fees, DNR receives its funding from general revenue appropriated by the State General Assembly and money from the federal government. General revenue funds have dropped from $102 million to $48.9 million over the past 10 years.

Miller pointed to a $5.7 million decrease in funding for the next fiscal year and said it would force many staff positions to go unfilled and could threaten some major programs.

“When people leave or retire, we’re going to have to let them go and not replace them,” he said.

The work to trim expenses began in earnest last month. Lawmakers voted 114-0 on House Bill 404, which eliminates some mandates that had required DNR dollars.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, has become a champion for DNR.

“They have seen the budget of the DNR shrink drastically while having more mandates placed on it and half the number of people still doing the decades of work to the best of their abilities,” Mautino said.

Miller said DNR had more than 750 mandates on the books – more than any other state agency. For two days this winter, Miller and some staff sat down and went through every single mandate, talking about each one and deciding which ones could be eliminated legally.

Miller then spent eight hours on his own, looking over the list of mandates one more time.

Elimination of 15 or so mandates and cuts such as the magazine may not cover the giant deficit facing DNR, but it’s a start, Miller said.

“It’s a million here, a hundred grand there, but it’s a start,” he said. “The goal is to combine the cuts with new sources of revenue to put us back where we want – where we need – to be.”

State park fees are on the way, but Miller said Mautino and others have been working to implement more fees – fees not related to hunting or fishing.

Some of the ideas and thoughts Mautino’s faction have made public and are under discussion are:

  • User groups and industries should bear more of the cost of DNR’s operations.
  • Extractive industries (coal, oil, gas, and aggregate mining companies) need to pay their fair share of the costs they impose on the DNR’s operations, and the costs of their activities to shared natural resources.
    “We should ensure that fees and taxes on these activities cover all of these costs in full,” Mautino said.
  • DNR’s capacity to protect resources, not weaken them.
  • Any proposal should include a structure to insulate the revenue against legislative and administra- tive sweeps and loans.

Emken noted that the timing is right to get legislation passed to help DNR reach its goals.

“It’s as friendly an atmosphere in Springfield that I’ve seen in a long time, and I’ve been around a long time,” she said. “I’m encouraged by lawmakers like Mautino. The questions is, do we have leadership in the state to get through this?”

It’s hard to know what will resonate with hunters and anglers – or the general public – when it comes to taxes and fees, Emken said. “Personally, as a hunter and outdoors person, I don’t mind paying a little more here or there if – and I repeat if – it [money from fees] goes where I want it to go.”

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