State parks, DNR may be focus of session
Springfield — Closing state parks, cutting programs and services and even eliminating DNR. When lawmakers and wildlife officials said this spring that “everything was on the table” for the state’s natural resources, no one was sure what “everything” meant.
Hunters and anglers may soon find out.
The Illinois General Assembly returns to Springfield later this month for its fall veto session. It’s during this session that Senate Bill 1566 – known as the DNR Sustainability Bill – is expected to be brought back into the spotlight.
SB 1566, which began its life as House Bill 1493, is a plan to raise the cost of license plates by $2 to help fund Illinois state parks. It fell three votes short in the Senate as lawmakers recessed on May 31. Many felt the bill had enough votes to pass, and lawmakers in support of the legislation are eager to call it to a vote once again.
“This bill is going to save DNR,” state Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, said during th summer. Phelps said he voted for SB 1566 because of the economic importance of state parks to his region.
DNR Director Marc Miller admitted that the state’s pension issue is “squeezing out general revenue” and DNR is taking a major hit from it. Maintenance projects at state parks and other facilities are being deferred. DNR currently has about $750 million in deferred maintenance, he said.
SB 1566 was crafted by state Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley. Interestingly, prior to the Nov. 6 election in which Mautino was re-elected, he made comments during a candidates forum about SB 1566 and the uncertain fate of state parks.
Mautino told a crowd in Ottawa that if the legislation is not passed before spring, either in the veto session or during the January session, DNR parks and facilities could begin closing before the end of 2013.
“My proposal, my goal, is to make DNR sustainable,” Mautino told the The Times of Ottawa.
DNR’s general revenue fund appropriations dropped from $107 million in 2003 to about $48 million in 2012. Staffing levels were slashed from 2,600 employees a decade ago to around 1,100 this year. The 2013 state budget slashes DNR’s operating fund by 13.5 percent.
Mautino, who worked closely with DNR officials, built a coalition of more than 30 conservation groups and organizations, including Ducks Unlimited and the Illinois Paddling Council, to support the license plate fee hike plan.
“If approved, this proposal would generate $32 million in new, sustainable revenues for DNR which would not and cannot be swept into the general fund or any other place,” Mautino told The Times.
An earlier plan floated by lawmakers included a state park admission fee. The plan would have charged an annual fee for a sticker to access state parks. That plan met opposition because of the difficulty of monitoring the comings and goings of park visitors and the policing of a “parking sticker” element of the plan.
Meanwhile, additions to SB 1566 are being encouraged by a group let by retired DNR fisheries chief Mike Conlin.
The group wants additional language written into the bill that would implement a Fish Management Fund, a special fund from which the DNR fisheries chief must authorize expenditures.
Conlin said having such a fund would protect fishing programs from budget “sweeps” and help re-build what was once a model Division of Fisheries.
“Without it, you may very well see the end of things like the Urban Fishing Program and even vital fish management practices,” Conlin said.