Editorial: DNR neglected for too long
Rockford Register Star
If it seems as if the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been under attack for a decade, it’s because it has.
Since 2002, the DNR’s funding from the state’s general revenue fund has been cut 52 percent, from $107 million in 2002 to $51 million in 2011. The latest state budget cuts another 13.5 percent — nearly $34 million. The agency has about 1,500 fewer people working for it than it did in 2002, a 58 percent reduction.
Less money and fewer people make a tough combination for an agency that delivers as many services for Illinoisans as the DNR does. You may only think of the DNR in terms of outdoor recreation such as fishing, hunting and other activities that can be enjoyed at the state’s 324 natural sites, but the agency also has offices for mines and minerals, water resources and many more under its authority.
An agency that big and that important to Illinois’ outdoors and the quality of life for Illinois residents deserves more respect than it has received from the Illinois General Assembly. It deserves its own funding source so that it does not have to rely on increasingly hard-to-come-by general tax dollars. It deserves to keep the money it earns rather than have lawmakers take it away to finance other projects.
The DNR was teased with a couple of pieces of legislation that would have helped it generate the revenue it needs. The Illinois House passed a bill that would allow admission fees at state parks and natural areas, but the bill stalled in the Senate.
Charging admission fees makes sense. Anglers and hunters support the DNR through their license fees, but other park users such as bicyclists, hikers, bird watchers and other nature lovers should also contribute so these resources can remain available to them.
The fees could be collected by setting up kiosks and having park users fill out provided envelopes, put their money into the envelope and drop it into a slot in the kiosk. It’s similar to how people pay fees at boat launches in Wisconsin, which has charged admission to its state parks for decades.
It was in the dark ages of the Blagojevich era that the governor closed 11 state parks because of an out-of-whack budget. No one has suggested such a drastic action today, but you have to wonder with reduced funding and $750 million in deferred maintenance and capital needs how realistic it is to keep all sites open under the present budget constraints.
A separate bill that would have raised about 20 fees to help pay for department operations and park improvements passed, but didn’t pass.
That may not seem to make sense, but remember we’re talking about the workings of the Illinois General Assembly.
The bill passed the House 61-56 on May 31, the last scheduled day of the session. It got enough yes votes in the Senate, too, but because the vote took place after midnight, the rules for approval changed. The measure needed 36 votes.
Illinois’ pension woes — the worst unfunded pension liability in the country — have hit all state agencies, but it hurts the DNR in a couple of ways.
The money squeeze is obvious, but the uncertainty about what lawmakers will do about pensions has hastened the retirements of valuable DNR employees. Their experience and knowledge will be difficult to replace, if the agency can afford to replace them at all.
The pension burden must be dealt with to ensure the state’s fiscal health.
Bond agencies are watching. Lack of action could further erode the state’s bond ratings, making it more costly to get projects done.
Pensions are a priority and we urge lawmakers to return to Springfield soon rather than wait until November. Procrastinating will not make the solutions easier or any less painful.
And, if and when they get back to work, we think lawmakers should help the DNR become as self-sufficient as possible by creating a dedicated revenue stream for the agency.