Monday, March 26, 2012

House approves fees for state parks

By Jamey Dunn 

Visitors to the state’s parks may soon be required to pay a fee.

The House approved a bill today that would allow the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to charge fees for entry to the parks. Under the measure, those wanting to go to parks would have the option of purchasing an annual pass or paying per day.

“The campers that go there see picnic tables broken, fire pits not maintained. There’s just certain things that you need to have a state park [be] safe — safe for our children safe for those who use [it],” said Rep. JoAnn Osmond, a sponsor of House Bill 5789. “This is a user fee. This is only for people that come and use the parks.”

 As of last summer, the DNR said that there was $750 million in repairs and maintenance needed at the state’s parks. (For more on the deferred maintenance on state parks, see Illinois Issues July/August 2011.) Osmond, an Antioch Republican, said: “The parks are desperate for repairs. They need their roads repaired. They need buildings redone. They need the sewer [and] septic systems all refinished, and that’s what this bill is for. It’s to give the parks access to repairs.” Osmond estimates that her bill would create between $8 million and $9 million in revenue for DNR.

The bill leaves most of the details up to the department by simply giving it the power to collect fees. It does not set costs for the fees. Osmond said that imposing a fee would not create new administrative costs for the DNR. She said the fees would be enforced by the department’s conservation officers, much in the same way that hunting and fishing licenses are now, and new staff for enforcement would not be needed. “It’s really more on the honor system,” she said.

“No one likes to vote for a fee increase, but if we believe in having the parks, having them open and having them safe, then we need to do this,” said Rep. Donald Moffitt, a Republican from Gilson.

The legislation passed with bipartisan support, but several lawmakers said they were concerned that the money raised by fees would be swept into the General Revenue Fund and not go toward park maintenance. Osmond noted that most recently, Gov. Pat Quinn has practiced interfund borrowing — which requires that money taken from special funds be paid back with interest — instead of simply sweeping funds. Osmond said that since the repairs are so needed and Quinn supported reopening the parks after his predecessor, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, closed many of them, it is unlikely he would want to sweep the funds. “I think that the chances of it being swept in the near future are very slim.” Blagojevich swept fees from several DNR funds but later had to replace some of the money that came from federal sources.

 Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat, argued that the legislation would not ensure that the fees go toward repairs. “There’s many new possibilities for the department to raise money on fees. What I don’t see in this bill is anything that would safeguard those monies. There’s nothing in this bill that would prevent a fund sweep.”

The bill now goes to the Senate.

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