Feds withold $1 million grant from DNR
The State Journal-Register
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources will not receive a $1 million federal grant until it tells the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service what happened to nearly $600,000 in hunting and fishing license money that may have been spent improperly.
DNR funds are among those targeted by the legislature to be “swept” of extra money to pay for other state expenses.
Until it gets an answer — and a plan from DNR to fix the problem — the Fish and Wildlife Service said it is holding up a grant to help build a boat-access point at Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton.
To receive a share of federal excise taxes on sporting goods, states must agree not to spend hunting and fishing license revenue on things other than wildlife and sport fish restoration projects.
That means even some operations of DNR cannot be paid for with license funds.
An audit conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service of the 2003-04 fiscal year turned up the problem, and DNR has failed to respond with a satisfactory answer since correspondence started between the state and federal agencies in December 2006, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It’s entirely possible we will get the answer to the license fee question and get the satisfactory corrective action,” Bob Bryant, chief of wildlife and sport fish restoration for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said Wednesday. “We can’t give them this grant until they tell us.”
“DNR constantly communicates with a number of federal agencies on an ongoing basis on a number of issues,” said that agency’s spokesman, Chris McCloud. “This is currently an issue that is a pending internal issue between the department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
A proposal to redirect extra money, or “sweep,” special state funds to help close the state’s budget gap included funds administered by DNR that had federal restrictions attached.
Such sweeps in the past have been challenged.
Susan Donovan of The Nature Conservancy estimated that $14.6 million in federal matching funds could be lost if the state took money from funds like the Wildlife and Fish Fund, State Migratory Waterfowl Stamp Fund and Pheasant Fund to pay Illinois’ bills.
Analysis by the state Office of Management and Budget found that those funds were due to be swept for $6.25 million.
Donovan said other funds still on the list for sweeps may also have federal dollars attached, including the DNR Special Projects Fund ($500,000), Habitat Endowment Trust Fund ($2 million), Illinois Habitat Fund ($1 million), and Fish and Wildlife Endowment Fund ($500,000).
Bryant said DNR has made resolving issues, such as the proposal to close about a dozen state parks, difficult by not allowing its employees to talk to his agency.
“Some DNR employees have told us recently that they are under a gag order and they can’t really talk about this,” he said. “We were informed that we would have to talk to others higher up.
“The information was available. It was just not available from the people we usually talk to.”