By Jamey Dunn
Supporters of a plan to increase fees to fund the state's struggling Illinois Department of Natural Resources see the prospect of lawmakers returning this summer to address pension reform as an opportunity.
A proposal to raise vehicle registration fees by $2, which would bring the cost to $101 annually, had the votes to pass if it would have been called for a vote in the Senate before the midnight Friday adjournment deadline. At that point, the proposal would have needed only a simple majority to be approved. The revenues from the plan would go toward funding the DNR, which faces about $750 million in deferred maintenance at the state’s parks.
But the bill was called for a vote after midnight and under Illinois Constitution needed a three-fifths majority to become effective prior to June 1, 2013. “I can’t put my finger specifically on why this [vote] was 12:05 a.m. because we were ready to go,” said Sen. Toi Hutchinson, a sponsor of Senate Bill 1566. “Had it been 11:48 p.m., that bill would have passed.”
The measure had passed in the House just hours earlier on May 31. “I felt bad that I couldn’t carry it over the finish line,” said Hutchinson, an Olympia Fields Democrat.
She said the bill was the product of negotiations from several interest groups and had a broad coalition of backers. “You never see these groups in the same place at the same time. You don’t get the Illinois Coal Association with Sierra Club. You don’t get bicyclists with ABATE. You don’t get the Illinois Oil and Gas Association with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. It just doesn’t happen.”
The proposal would also allow the DNR to charge out-of-state visitors park entrance fees and charge all visitors access fees for certain park features, such as beaches and horse trails. A previous plan of charging entrance fees for all park visitors was scrapped in lieu of the proposed increased vehicle registration fee. “If you live in Illinois and you have an Illinois plate, it’s open season. Go to any park you want to,” Hutchinson said of the plan.
DNR officials say they are looking for “sustainable” revenue sources outside of the state’s General Revenue Fund — which is being squeezed by other priorities, such as growing pension costs. DNR is funded from several other funds outside of GRF and some are running low. “What we have is a very sound package that will help DNR get through its next set of issues with the budget. We are essentially running out of time with our other state funds, and these will help us have a sustainable business model," said DNR Director Marc Miller.
Republicans who voted against the bill argues that Democrats have pulled money out of the DNR program to spend elsewhere. “That’s been a policy choice. This wasn’t some irresistible, unchangeable movement that we were faced with, so now we have to go once again and dig even deeper into people’s pockets,” said Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican. He said they should cut elsewhere and use that money to save the parks. “That’s not right. At some point you just have to say no. Fund the parks. They are in horrible condition.” Under Gov. Pat Quinn, DNR costs have been shifted out of general revenue fund spending and into other funds.
Chris McCloud, a spokesperson for DNR, said the vote took place on “kind of a disappointing day” for conservation and the department. However, he said that DNR officials are optimistic about making another attempt at passing the plan. “It was not a loss,” he said.
Both McCloud and Hutchinson are optimistic that the measure can find the support needed to pass. The bill fell short by three votes on June 1. “It was very clear to us that people understand what’s at stake for this agency and for those people that depend on it. I think we’re going to have another opportunity to put this before the legislature,” McCloud said.
Hutchinson said lawmakers may have a chance to take up the issue again if they return to session to consider pensions reform legislation. Efforts at pension reform fell short in the regularly scheduled session. Quinn and the four legislative leaders plan to meet tomorrow to try to start work on hashing out a compromise that can pass in both chambers. Quinn said lawmakers would need to return to vote on a proposal in the near future.
McCloud said that DNR is not considering closing any parks yet but is instead trying to use the staff and resources it has as strategically as possible. “I don’t think we’re prepared to go that far at this point,” he said. “Certainly there’s going to have to be some tough choices made if we can’t get some sustainable funding, [but] right now we’re not pushing the panic button.”