The Illinois Senate has approved a $2 license plate fee to improve crumbling state parks, The Associated Press reported Wednesday afternoon. The plan to cut into a $750 million backlog in park maintenance and repairs now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn.
State Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) told the NewsTribune at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday he had just talked to Quinn 15 minutes earlier and the governor had told him he plans to sign the bill. Just as importantly, he said the governor said he would make sure the $22 million raised by the fee would not be diverted into areas where it is not intended to go.
Namely, $1 of each $2 fee should go to repair and rebuild roads, structures and buildings in parks, and the rest can go to support operations of the park system, the Division of Water and the Division of Mines and Minerals, all of which Mautino says are important to his district and the state.
“I see it as being a good, positive thing,” Mautino said of the license fee. He also considers it positive for downstate Illinois.
He said the DNR has seen its staffing shrink drastically and its budget slashed in half, from $100 million 10 years ago to $45 million now. A basic annual license plate currently costs $99.
“They’ve had a 10-year hiring freeze, and a third of the people have retired,” Mautino said of the DNR. “They’ve had to use up all of their (cash) reserves.”
It was the second go for the Senate; the measure failed in June but received a 39-11 vote in favor on Wednesday, the AP reported.
The license-plate fee was suggested as an alternative to charging an entrance fee. Mautino said that means the state won’t have to put up parking-pass kiosks or toll booths. Out-of-state park users would be able to get a pass or sticker at a park office or visitor center, Mautino said. However, out-of-state visitors who stay at any of the six state park lodges, including Starved Rock Lodge, would not be required to have a sticker to use the park after already paying to stay in the park. Mautino said that stipulation was worked out in advance with lodge concessionaires.
Mautino said one cost-saving measure in the bill is elimination of a lot of mandates the DNR had “that were good ideas when we had money.”
Mautino says in addition to being able to more quickly make repairs, the state parks should be able to start hiring people again, although it won’t restore park funding to near where it was a decade ago.
Neither Starved Rock State Park superintendent Mark McConnaughhay nor Hennepin Canal State Parkway State Trail superintendent David Hahne knew exactly how the license plate fee will affect their park. McConnaughhay said he prefers to wait until the governor signs the bill before commenting.
During the past few years the Hennepin Canal staff has worked to make necessary repairs and preventative-maintenance work, while not being able to perform much of the “everyday maintenance” such as constant mowing and brush-cutting that was done three months a year in the past, Hahne said. The staffing level for the parkway has declined, and that’s the factor that’s had the greatest effect on the parkway and associated parks.
Instead of putting three people on a trail- and levee-repair crew after washouts from flooding of Bureau Creek, Hahne often had a one-person crew working this summer and fall.
State director says
Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Marc Miller made the following statement about Wednesday’s passage of Senate Bill 1566, calling it “a crucial funding bill” for the IDNR:
“This vote is a victory for conservation and the environment in Illinois; it is also a victory for the economy and communities across the state that use and rely on the services the IDNR provides on a daily basis. I commend state representative Frank Mautino and state Senator Toi Hutchinson for their leadership and hard work leading up to today’s action. I also want to thank the members of Illinois’ General Assembly who supported this bill, which will allow us to meet the needs of constituents, including those who use our state parks in the years to come.”
Miller continued: “While it’s important to remember that capturing these new funds will take time, we will work as quickly as we can to put the new revenues toward their intended purpose. Passage of this bill will help us hire critical staff to maintain state parks, fix aging infrastructure, speed up regulatory functions and make a bigger difference in the lives of everyone we serve,” Miller added.
Mautino said $11 million in annual funding for repairs could soon mean $90 million in repair and restoration jobs, if bonds are issued and paid off through the license plate fees.