(MCT) — Illinois drivers would have to pay an additional $2 for their license plate stickers to help the state take better care of its parks beginning next year under legislation the Senate sent to the governor Wednesday.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn supported the fee hike as a way to bring in more money to fix crumbling roads, leaky roofs, trails and broken toilets in a state park system that has seen its budget cut heavily over the past dozen years.
The extra $2 would push the annual sticker cost for a regular license plate to $101. The fee increase applies to plates for motorcycles, pickup trucks, vans and cars. It wouldn't be imposed on commercial or recreational vehicles, however.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, and Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, passed the Senate overwhelmingly Wednesday. The House approved it last spring.
The Department of Natural Resources estimated it needs as much as $750 million for repairs. The fee increase is expected to raise more than $20 million a year. The agency will be allowed to put half that money into construction projects and the rest into staff and programs.
Agency Director Marc Miller called the action a "victory for conservation and the environment in Illinois," saying the move allows Illinoisans to use parks without having to pay entrance fees.
The agency's staffing level has dropped from about 2,600 employees in 2002 to just under 1,200 today, Miller said. The annual budget has dropped from $107 million to $48 million. Miller said the agency also is looking at charging fees for out-of-state visitors to the parks.
Secretary of State Jesse White opposed the bill because he wants money for license plates to be used to support drivers and roads, spokesman Henry Haupt said. One hitch: The law would take effect Jan. 1 if Quinn signs it. But renewal notices already have been sent for annual fees due Jan. 14, and the soonest White's office expects to be able to implement the $2 fee hike would be for March renewals, Haupt said.
In the House, Speaker Michael Madigan pushed through a resolution that calls for a freeze in the amount of money the state sets aside for union worker salaries.
The move comes as Quinn and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are immersed in protracted negotiations for a state worker contract that would expire about July 2015.
Madigan, D-Chicago, said the resolution, which now goes to the Senate, expresses the "will of the House that the bargaining would result in zero pay increases for all of those represented by unions in this negotiation."
"It's a message to the governor's office, and it's a message to the unions representing workers in this bargaining," Madigan said.
Supporters long have maintained that lawmakers should have a bigger say in the negotiations because ultimately the Legislature must vote on how much state government spends.
The Senate also took up a money matter, voting to restore more than $56 million in cuts Quinn made by shuttering a number of state sites, including the supermax prison in downstate Tamms. The legislation goes to the House, but restoring the allocation may be no more than symbolic because Quinn is not required to spend it.
Republican Sen. Christine Radogno, of Lemont, survived a challenge Wednesday night and will continue as Senate GOP leader for two more years. Senate Republicans lost five seats in this month's election, dropping their numbers to 19 in the 59-member chamber. Sen. Kyle McCarter, of Lebanon in southern Illinois, offered a conservative alternative to Radogno.
Earlier Wednesday, the Democratic majority in the Senate confirmed appointments for two Downstate Democrats who voted for last year's Quinn-backed income tax increase. Rep. Bob Flider landed as director of agriculture and Rep. Mike Smith got a job on the labor board that addresses educational issues.
The Senate also approved former Democratic Senate President Emil Jones Jr. as chairman of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority along with former labor leader Dennis Gannon and businessman Elzie Higginbottom. The three played a significant role in backing Quinn's choice of Kelly Kraft, his communications chief, as the new head of the authority despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel's strong opposition.