DNR answers questions about funding, future

Springfield — Rather than a “fiscal cliff,” DNR late last year found itself facing a “fiscal slope” – one that took years to descend, but one that was destined to sink the agency into a deep hole of budgetary chaos.

Along came state Rep. Frank Mautino and a General Assembly that managed to level that slope by passing Senate Bill 1566.

Still, many questions remain about what has become known as the “DNR Sustainability Bill,” which was signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn last month.

The law, which went into effect Jan. 1, raises some fishing permit fees and adds $2 to the cost of a license plate in Illinois.

So far, the only setback involving the law was an announcement by the office of Secretary of State Jesse White, who pointed out that the law was created too late to notify drivers who are renewing their licenses during January and February.

The $2 fee increase is now slated to take effect March 1.

DNR spokesman Chris McCloud said the delay in collecting the new fee was expected and losing two months of extra revenue from it is not a concern for the agency.

For its part, DNR released a list of answers to common questions about the new law, including specific questions about how the funds will be used – and, more importantly, how they will be protected.

What does SB 1566 do for DNR?

SB 1566 was designed with input from more than three dozen agency user groups which agreed upon increased or new charges for services provided by the DNR. The bill will generate new revenue streams that will help the DNR fix aging infrastructure and other facilities at our state parks, hire staff to continue important DNR programs and speed up the agency’s vast regulatory functions.

How much money will the bill generate for the DNR?

Revenues generated by the Illinois motor vehicle registration fee are projected to generate $18 million to $20 million annually. Combined with other specific user fees in the bill, the total new funding for the DNR is projected to generate $30 million to $33 million per year.

What will the DNR use the money for?

Funds generated from the motor vehicle registration fee will be used solely in state parks and other DNR sites in two ways; hire more staff to maintain parks properly and to fix aging infrastructure.

The Illinois State Parks System faces over $750 million in deferred maintenance and capital needs, including deteriorating bath and shower facilities, outdated and dangerous electrical systems, concerns with potable water systems because of well failures and testing issues, failure of sewage treatment facilities, and repair work on roads, bridges and trails damaged because of storms and age-related deterioration.

Are there restrictions on how the money can be spent?

Yes, certain fees are designated to support specific functions. Also, revenues may be restricted based on the fund in which the money is deposited. Many special funds have existing designations for how the money in them can be spent.

The $2 motor vehicle registration fee is statutorily split: $1 for DNR’s normal operations and $1 for construction and maintenance of the sites.

How quickly will residents start to see that money used?

It is projected to take between 9-12 months for the DNR to begin to capture these new revenues. While the DNR will act as quickly as possible to use these new revenues in meaningful and purposeful ways, it won’t happen overnight.

Why does the DNR need more funding?

Over the last 10 years, the DNR has lost more than 50 percent of its General Revenue funding it receives annually. In 2002, General Revenue funding for the DNR was over $100 million. Today, DNR receives less than $50 million. The DNR has 1,400 employees fewer than it did 10 years ago. Those employees are responsible for every program and service the agency provides to its constituents including maintaining state parks, regulatory functions, law enforcement and conservation and natural areas.

How can DNR assure that these new funds won’t be used for purposes outside the agency?

Specific language within SB 1566 which was agreed upon by the governor’s office and House speaker’s office prevents the money generated by the bill to be used for anything other than funding the DNR.

How is the DNR going to prioritize spending on the money?

DNR will use public safety as its main criteria for prioritizing projects. Those projects that help protect the public’s safety will be considered priority projects. Because of the size of the backlog of maintenance projects ($750 million worth) without additional revenue it will take decades to make all necessary repairs. 

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