Illinois Department of Natural Resources is in a tight space, but state Rep. Frank Mautino expects a solution is in sight.
A funding bill that failed to pass the state Senate this spring will likely be called for another vote — either this summer if the Legislature is called back into session, or in the fall veto session.
When it is called, Mautino said he was confident the bill had votes to pass: Enough legislators are committed to vote for it, he said, “but when the bill was finally called at 1 o’clock in the morning” on May 31, it fell short because two state Senators were not on the Senate floor at that time.
The bill is part of a package that includes cutting $11 million in IDNR’s expenditures by eliminating responsibilities of the department that are deemed either redundant with federal oversight or not essential. The cuts were developed after IDNR head Marc Miller submitted a budget for the department. Those changes already have been approved and await Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature.
In preparing legislation, Mautino said representatives of 50 groups — from cyclists to hunters to businesses involved in coal mining — sat down to talk about ways to keep IDNR functioning, and places to reduce redundant oversight.
The bill that still awaits Senate approval would include a $2-per-year license plate fee for all Illinois vehicle owners, as well as fees for user groups such as canoe and kayak users. Those fees were designed by organizations representing each user group, and would be collected in different ways. For example, a “paddle pass” would cost a paddler $18 for three years and would be paid at the time of purchasing a kayak or canoe, and owners of other boats would see an increase in the cost of their yearly sticker, varying with the size of their boat. Those fees would be used only for boat ramp programs. Blasting and mining fees would be used to run the office of mines and minerals, which would pay for the cost of issuing permits and hiring mine inspectors. Cyclists who want to use state trails such as the Illinois and Michigan Canal also would pay a fee, and those funds would be dedicated to repairing the trails.
“And that’s the only thing those monies could be used for,” Mautino said, pointing out another provision in the law: Those dedicated funds cannot be cleared out at the end of the year to pay for other state expenses.
“The most important thing is, the governor will not sweep the funds,” Mautino said.
That’s key in preventing the department from falling into financial difficulty in the future.
This budget year is critical for IDNR, Mautino said. IDNR’s appropriation is short by about $25.5 million of the $45 million the state typically funds. Actual operating costs are about $70 million per year, and Mautino said IDNR will exhaust its reserves in another year of underfunding.
“Next budget year –— There’s a cliff there,” Mautino said.
That’s not lost on IDNR employees. Because of insecurity about funding for the department and for pensions for state employees, a wave of retirements already has begun, including three retirements at Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks. Mautino expected at least 100 would retire by July 1, though about 330 of IDNR’s 1105 employees are eligible for retirement.
“Statewide, that will make some problems,” Mautino said. “If 100 retire, they should be able to replace about 40 of them.”
If the funding bills are approved this summer or in the fall session, Mautino said they still could be effective beginning Jan. 1. But because of the time it takes to print stickers, he expected the earliest the plan could be implemented would be in March 2013.
State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) said she expects to see the bill come for a vote this summer or next fall, and will have to take a close look at the legislation. She voted against the bill in May.
“I do think Representative Mautino went about negotiating this bill the right way, and I commend him for it,” Rezin said. “And I do think that many people in our caucus who don’t vote for fee increases realize that DNR, in the past 10 years, their funding has been decimated.”
Knowing that the governor will not be able to sweep the funds makes the bill more palatable. Also a factor is the importance of her district’s several state parks — including Starved Rock, Matthiessen, Buffalo Rock, Illini State Park, Gebhard Woods and Goose Lake Prairie — in the regional economy.
“The state parks are very important to tourism in the area. They’re important to people who take staycations in the area,” Rezin said.
Helping hand for state parks
To help alleviate pressures on park staff, Rezin sponsored another bill that is awaiting the governor’s signature: the Adopt-A-Park Act.
Under the act, individuals or groups of volunteers can receive permission to clean up garbage in state parks.
“We originally tried to get a little more, maybe a little of a project base. That didn’t work out,” Rezin said. “But we did agree on allowing volunteer organizations to come in and do spring cleanups, just like groups clean up highways.”
“We are severely understaffed in our state parks around here,” Rezin said. “This will just free up some of their time to do larger projects, the larger maintenance projects, that need to be addressed in the parks.”
Volunteers will need to make a request for permission, provide their own safety gear if working near a roadway, and sign a “hold harmless” release. The act would become effective when signed into law.
Allison Ryan can be reached at (815) 220-6931 or email@example.com.