Editorial: Approve fees to help DNR
The State Journal-Register
You’d be hard-pressed to find an agency in state government that has suffered more over the last decade than the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Its budget has shrunk from $107 million to $45 million. Its headcount is down from 2,600 employees in 2002 to fewer than 1,200 today. More than half of DNR’s current employees, many of whom are experts in specialized fields related to conservation, will be eligible for retirement within three years.
The figures are more stark when contrasted with the importance of DNR’s mission: to protect, promote and improve the state’s waterways, wildlife, state parks and public lands that, in many cases, contain habitats and species in need of preservation.
In today’s Heartland section, State Journal-Register outdoors reporter Chris Young writes about efforts to maintain and manage some of the state’s most popular parks despite dwindling funding.
“We do not have the people to do work we need to do in state parks, regulatory (duties), fish and wildlife,” DNR Director Marc Miller said. “The cracks are showing.”
When this work goes undone or is deferred for years at a time, the effects result in more than just uncut grass. Invasive plant species gain footholds because abatement efforts are reduced. Important biological research is suspended or halted. Poorly maintained camping and recreational areas threaten a $1 billion-per-year industry for the state.
“Our visitations are going up and (park) staff is going down. And the park’s superintendent and assistant superintendent retired, and that is a major concern for everyone,” Terry Cross, president and chief executive officer of Starved Rock Lodge at Starved Rock State Park, told Young.
The Illinois General Assembly narrowly missed a chance to put Illinois back on the right path in its natural resources stewardship during the spring legislative session. Senate Bill 1566, which contains a package of user fee increases and adds a $2 license plate fee for DNR funding, does more than just bring much-needed revenue into DNR. It changes the agency’s business model from one of relying heavily on tax dollars allotted from the state General Revenue Fund to one of user support by those who hunt, fish, camp and enjoy numerous other activities in state parks and recreation areas.
The bill would have passed the General Assembly had it come up for a vote in the Senate a few minutes earlier on the session’s final day. The Senate approved the bill by a 33-21 vote, but because the vote came after midnight (technically in the early morning of June 1), it needed a super majority of 36 votes.
This bit of unfinished business has been overshadowed by the unfinished issue of pension reform. The latter must be addressed to avoid dire financial consequences for the state budget. We believe failure to reverse years of neglect to DNR will have environmental consequences equally dire.
We had hoped SB 1566 might get another shot at making up the three votes it needs during a special session sometime this summer at which a pension bill might also be presented. But with Gov. Pat Quinn and the four legislative leaders not meeting again for more than a month, our hope for a summer resolution of either issue is fading.
Regardless, DNR’s plight must not fall off the public radar screen between now and whenever the legislature re-convenes — possibly not until the post-election veto session in November. When the time comes, lawmakers should waste no time approving this bill and restoring safety to the state’s most precious and irreplaceable resources.