DNR advocates push for changes in state funding
Written by State Journal Register   
Sunday, 09 January 2005 12:28
Illinois --An oak tree planted today probably will outlive the person shoveling dirt over its roots.

And those charged with protecting Illinois' parks, fish and wildlife say the state needs to set aside money to protect those resources far into the future.

In the wake of sharp budget cuts in recent years, advocates for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources say it may be time to change the way the agency is funded and administered. DNR's operating budget has dropped from about $220 million in fiscal 2003 to $188.8 million for fiscal 2005.

"If you have a stable funding source, even if that source is not all you would like it to be, at least you know what to expect," said former DNR director Brent Manning. "You will be able to plan, and you would be able to plant that oak tree."

Manning headed the DNR and its predecessor, the Department of Conservation, for 11 years. He is now executive director of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Manning and others say Illinois should set up a natural resources commission system, similar to that used in Missouri and Arkansas. Commissioners overseeing the agency could be either elected or appointed, and the agency's income could be derived from a fraction of the state sales tax.

The proposal isn't new. Manning said he favored the idea during his tenure as DNR director. The Conservation Congress, made up of representatives of constituency groups, has recommended surveying public support for earmarking 1/10 of 1 percent of existing state sales tax receipts for conservation purposes. The Missouri formula is 1/8 of 1 percent.

"It's been talked about for years," DNR spokesman Joe Bauer said about the commission idea, although DNR is not currently pushing for change.

"We haven't talked to any legislators willing to bring it up this year," he said.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has said he is against increasing sales or income taxes.

Marilyn Campbell, executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society, said stable funding could help prevent the loss of institutional knowledge that occurs when large numbers of experienced employees retire or are laid off at the same time.

"I would really like to see the conservation organizations and the sportsmen to get together and create a commission to handle the DNR, to take the politics out of it, and we wouldn't have people with 25-30 years experience being put out in the cold," she said. "It's just sad the experience that's being lost in the department."

Two hundred seventy-two of the agency's employees took early retirement in 2002. DNR was authorized to have 1,827 employees for fiscal 2005, which began July 1, 216 fewer than during the 2004 fiscal year. To stay within its budget for this fiscal year, DNR laid off 37 employees in October and issued notices to 87 more effective Friday. The second round of layoffs would bring the number of DNR employees to about 1,710.

Dr. Brian Anderson - chair of the department of biological and physical sciences at Lincoln Land Community College and the former director of DNR's office of resource conservation - warns that a commission isn't a panacea.

"There is devil in the details in how you construct the commission," he said. "It's not a 'be all, end all.' You've got to construct a commission thoughtfully."

But he said a panel that is carefully balanced, bipartisan and has budgetary leadership can be successful. Some that are strictly constituent-driven can bog down in infighting, he said.

In Missouri, administration of conservation laws is handled by a commission with four members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. No more than two can be from the same political party. The Missouri constitution says members "shall have knowledge of and interest in wildlife conservation."

Members receive no compensation beyond travel and expenses.

The Missouri Department of Conservation will receive $97.4 million in fiscal 2005 from sales taxes - about two-thirds of the that agency's $157 million budget.

Anderson said the creation of a commission could protect DNR from swings that occur when new administrations come into office.

"My sense of things is, this agency's fortunes are not simply falling with the economy," he said. "This is a reflection of the priorities of this governor. I honestly think that Joel (Brunsvold) and Leslie (Sgro) are doing the best they can, given the cards they are being dealt."

Brunsvold is DNR director and Sgro is a deputy director.

Bob Becker, president of the Illinois Federation for Outdoor Resources, said his organization supports a move to a conservation department with dedicated funding.

"We would certainly be willing to spearhead such a movement," he said.

Dave Kelm, coalition coordinator for the Partners for Parks and Wildlife, said stable funding for DNR is in the interest of the more than 130 groups under the organization's umbrella.

"The common denominator of all these groups is the funding source," Kelm said. "None of them can accomplish their missions without a stable funding source."

Manning said his position on the issue has grown partly out of his experience as past president of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

"I have looked from that position at those agencies that are most effective," he said. "Those that are most effective have built into them longevity. Longevity in funding, longevity in staff."

"It's the system that drives the outcome."

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