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New license fee hike must go to state parks

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 4:58 a.m. CDT

This editorial appeared in The Telegraph, Alton, Ill., on Dec. 3:

The Illinois Senate last week passed legislation adding $2 to the annual fee for renewing your vehicle’s license plate, among other charges, with the new revenue intended to go toward state parks.

Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to sign the bill into law; it passed the state House earlier.

Many Illinoisans agree that the state’s parks need more funding, but it would seem the idea of charging entry fees to park users might have been more fair. After all, many vehicle owners who now will pay $101 instead of $99 to get their standard license plates renewed each year may never even visit a state park. Meanwhile, entrance to the parks remains free, even for those without a vehicle.

But what really concerns us about the legislation is state government’s record of instituting such fees for various specified purposes, only to wind up using the revenues for others. We saw this happen repeatedly under the administration of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Whenever the governor or legislative leaders decided money was needed for a new program, or to boost the general revenue fund, they “swept” what they needed out of other dedicated funds. Many voters have developed an inherent mistrust about how these new revenues will be used, considering how often such money has been redirected away from its stated purpose.

Officials with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources say they expect the $2-per-license-plate fee to raise $18 million to $20 million a year to help cut into a $750 million backlog in park maintenance created by years of budget cuts. New fees for off-road recreation on state land and commercial fishing-related fees are expected to push the money raised by the new law to between $30 million and $35 million a year.

But those numbers don’t add up very well. Even if the new law does raise $35 million per year, it would take more than 20 years to make up for the $750 million “backlog,” and that’s not even considering how much additional maintenance will be required over the next two decades.

The IDNR has seen its budget and staff steadily cut for a decade as Illinois’ state government financial situation has grown worse. IDNR 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.

IDNR also has faced a wave of retirements that this year left about two dozen parks without superintendents, further cutting into staff available for maintenance and, in some cases, leading portions of parks such as popular networks of trails or other features to be closed. The retirements were driven in large part by concerns about the $85 billion shortfall in the pension system for state government workers.

Let’s face it. Until the state gets its act together on pensions and the overall budget mess, these new fees will do little more than slap a fresh coat of paint on the deteriorating infrastructure of our state parks. We just hope paying an extra two bucks a year for our vehicle plates doesn’t make our state leaders think they have a license to pull another budgeting switcheroo on us.

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