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Chuck Sweeny: License plate fee for parks not perfect

December 01, 2012 at 09:41 PM

Rockford Register Star

I wrote a column some time ago urging the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn to enact entrance fees for cars entering Illinois’ 324 state parks and historic sites. Most states have park entrance fees, and they work well. Usually there’s one price for in-state cars, and a higher fee for outsiders.

Lawmakers rejected that approach. Instead, they’ve passed and sent to Quinn a bill that adds a $2 charge to license plates, bringing the cost to $101. Proceeds from the extra charge on cars, motorcycles and vans are supposed to go for state park maintenance and staffing.

Commercial vehicles and RV’s are strangely exempt. Maybe the RV lobby has exceptional clout, because those behemoths are conveyances known to inhabit state park campgrounds.

There’s no doubt the parks need money. The Department of Natural Resources’ budget has been savaged during the last decade, first by outlaw governor Rod Blagojevich, and then by in-law Gov. Quinn, because critters and trees are an easy target when finances are tight.

There’s no “moose and squirrel” lobby.

According to the Associated Press, “the department has seen its budget and staff steadily cut for a decade as Illinois’ state government financial situation has grown worse. DNR has dwindled from 1,800 employees and a roughly $100 million annual budget in 2002 to about 1,200 people and a $45 million budget today.”

Some parks no longer have superintendents, and $750 million in maintenance projects are on hold.

Blagojevich also politicized the DNR, damaging a department that had been highly regarded for its professionalism by the environmental community. These cuts and the agency’s descent into the world of party hacks were penny-wise and pound foolish because state parks and conservation areas are big generators of tourism.

In the case of Rock Cut State Park, created in the mid-1960s, the state preserved and redeveloped a large, open space in the middle of a rapidly urbanizing area of Winnebago County. That was a wise purchase, and the credit goes to the late William Pierce, a Democratic state legislator from Rockford in the 1950s and 1960s.

Rock Cut is one of the biggest tourism magnets in northern Illinois, reporting 1.1 million visitors in 2011, says John Groh, president and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It is one of the most popular parks in Illinois. All the people coming in are buying gas and buying provisions at local stores. It’s a huge recreational benefit for the region. People come in from over an hour away to bike there,” Groh said.

The new fee, combined with other fees to be charged to ATV users in the parks and to commercial fishermen, is expected to generate from $30 million to $35 million a year.

That’s all well and good, provided the money is used as advertised. But Blagojevich started another bad practice called “fund sweeps,” which means the state raids special purpose funds to put money into the general fund. If that happens, then the parks won’t benefit as they should. So, we’ll be watching, gov’nor.

Chuck Sweeny: 815-987-1366; .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address); @chucksweeny

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