Habitat thievery no solution for park dilemma
Close the parks.
If stealing is the only solution politicians can dream up to keep Illinois parks open this fall, they should lock the gates. That’s the sad conclusion I’ve reached regarding the latest no-win situation in the world of Illinois natural resources.
Most of you know the story. The budget is unbalanced. State revenues are down. The Department of Natural Resources suffered $14 million in general revenue cuts. And Gov. Blagojevich proposed closing 11 parks and several historic sites to save money.
That prompted predictably angry replies from constituents. In response legislators hastily approved pilfering $221 million from special funds to keep the sites open and to avoid cuts to various social programs. That includes $2 million from the Illinois Habitat Endowment Trust Fund, $1 million from the Illinois habitat fund, $500,000 from the state migratory waterfowl stamp fund and $250,000 from the Illinois Pheasant Fund.
The governor rubber-stamped the sweeps, though he didn’t allocate money and apparently acknowledges “problems” with some dedicated funds. Instead of solving those problems, he dumped the load on Comptroller Dan Hynes. Hynes said he has no authority in the matter.
The entire sequence illustrates Illinois government at its dysfunctional, cowardly worst. This would be funny if it wasn’t so infuriating and so potentially damaging down the road.
The next time an Illinois politician proposes creating “a dedicated fund” he or she should be laughed out of Springfield. Special funds are too ripe for picking in times of need.
Even so, I have for years willingly paid $5.50 for a state habitat stamp and $10.50 for a state waterfowl stamp — fees required of hunters above and beyond the cost of licenses and permits.
I didn’t grumble much about the extra expense. In theory the money paid for hunting ground and critter habitat. Among my favorite fall destinations are Illinois Pheasant Habitat Areas, some of which were bankrolled by habitat stamps.
So I’ve always viewed habitat stamps as necessary user fees in a state where public ground and habitat is in short supply. They’re a pay-to-play tax with very clear objectives.
Problem is, these latest uses are at complete odds with those objectives. Providing habitat does not include paying for toilet paper at state parks or personnel to run bike trails.
More importantly, habitat funds are protected by language built into federal aid programs. Put simply, if you use hunter license fees for the wrong purposes, you will not get matching federal dollars. Due
to previous questionable practices, the federal government is already withholding a $1 million grant from Illinois. This current proposal could endanger another $15 million.
Fortunately, nothing is final. Legislators meet again in November for the veto session. The governor’s office is still taking calls at (217) 782-0244.
My call will include several points.
I want the parks to stay open, but not at the expense of dedicated funds. Stealing isn’t the way to silence all those angry constituents.
Maybe a tax increase is required. Better yet, maybe it’s time to charge user fees at larger state parks. Let’s follow the example of many other states and spread the funding burden with other park users: bikers, hikers, birders and picnickers.
Just don’t expect hunters to willingly pay for habitat stamps if this latest legislative thievery is legalized.