DNR has $23 million in federal dollars sitting idle
Written by News Tribune   
Saturday, 15 January 2005 12:12
As laid-off Illinois Department of Natural Resources workers clean out their desks, conservation organizations and state legislators are banding together to get the 87 employees? jobs back.

On Thursday, Rep. Mike Boland (D-East Moline) introduced House Bill 214 to restore the 87 employees jobs by taking money from a different fund.

"This is not something we see as a cure-all, but it is a strong first step," said Anders Lindall, spokesperson for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the DNR employees? union.

The 87 cuts, including seven in the tri-county area, took effect Friday. This is the second round of layoffs at the DNR, adding to the 37 that took place in October.

HB 214 directs the DNR to use a portion of the excess revenue now in the state?s Wildlife and Fish Fund to restore the 87 positions. The Wildlife and Fish Fund is part of the DNR?s budget.

According to research done by AFSCME, the fund currently has an unused surplus of as much as $23 million. AFSCME estimates that it would take $2 million to reinstate the laid off employees.

The money comes largely from fees sportsmen pay for permits, stamps and licenses but also includes federal money ? and that?s the catch.

DNR spokesman Joe Bauer said the department is looking into utilizing the money but is proceeding very carefully because the fund has federal money in it.

"Federal money has very, very strict rules and guidelines that restrict where we spend it," Bauer said. "If we can use it to pay salaries, that?s what we?re looking into."

State Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) said since Illinois is a donor state, the federal money in question may have to stay where it is.

"A donor state receives back less money from the federal government than it pays in," Mautino said. "Therefore, when we get federal money it can only be for very specific things."

To receive permission to spend the federal money elsewhere requires a federal waiver. Mautino said that usually doesn?t happen.

If the state spends the money on something other than what was intended, the state has to pay back the federal government.

Even though there are so many strings attached, AFSCME is certain the money can be used to give people their jobs back.

"Our position is that language indicates the vast majority of the jobs could be paid off by the Wildlife and Fish Fund," Lindall said. "It?s a shame folks are getting laid off while a fund sits there."

Bauer contends the money is not being used because there has not been "eligible spending" since the DNR received the money.

However, the $2 million dollars HB 214 refers to would still only get the DNR through the remainder of the fiscal year, which is the end of June.

"By then we hope to come up with a more comprehensive solution," Lindall said.

No official action, or talk, about HB 214 will happen until the house returns to session Jan. 26.

Already though, Lindall said, more than two-dozen legislators have expressed support for the bill.

Partners for Parks and Wildlife, a statewide coalition of more than 130 organizations dedicated to increasing funding for natural resources in Illinois, are also backing the bill.

"These positions that were cut are front-line positions. These people come into direct impact with people day in and day out," PPW coordinator Dave Kelm said. "It all boils down to funding."

State Sen. Gary Dahl (R-Granville) said he has not heard many details but is definetly interested in anything that will help bring jobs back while also supporting tourism.

"Tourism is a business and we keep taking away from the cash cow," Dahl said.

If HB 214 never materializes, Kelm said it could take several years to put the positions back.

But Mautino thinks just introducing the legislation is a step forward.

"Even if the bill itself never passes, it is important because during budget talks we can point to that, saying that they took too much money from the parks. We can use it as an argument," Mautino said.

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