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Will 'Safe Roads Amendment' Hobble State Parks?

Starved Rock State Park
courtesy Brian Mackey
all rights reserved
Starved Rock State Park is a popular tourist attraction. Illinois residents pay for the upkeep of state parks in part through a $2 fee on license plate renewals.

A key source of funding for the Department of Natural Resources could be blocked. Or maybe not.

TRANSCRIPT: Next month, Illinois voters will be asked whether to amend the state constitution to create a lockbox for transportation spending.

It would make it so money collected from things like the gasoline tax and license plate fees could only be spent on transportation.

But there are questions about unintended consequences — particularly for the Illinois state parks. I set out to find out whether there was cause for concern.

The big idea here is to use the Illinois Constitution to take power away from the General Assembly over how to spend certain taxes and fees.

The argument goes that money collected from the state tax on motor fuel — 19 cents a gallon — should only be used for things like roads and bridges and highway law enforcement. The lockbox would also apply to tolls, license plate registration and so forth.

It passed the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support in the spring. That’s thanks in part to a strong push from business and labor. If you own a construction company or drive the bulldozer, you want the state of Illinois spending more money on roads.

Backers are airing television ads in support of their cause.

TELEVISION AD: “… Safer roads, fewer potholes — without raising taxes. …”

The thing is, amending the constitution is hard. If the General Assembly makes a mistake in drafting a law, it’s relatively easy to fix. You just pass another law. But if there’s something off about a constitutional amendment, you can only fix it with another constitutional amendment. That means super-majority support in the House and the Senate and waiting two years to go back to voters at the next general election.

So what does all this have to do with the Illinois state parks?

The answer begins four years ago, when the Department of Natural Resources was in bad shape after years of funding cuts.

Legislators decided to put a $2 fee on every license plate renewal. Back in the 2015 budget year — which is the last time Illinois had a normal budget — DNR got $19 million from the license plate fee, about 12 percent of the agency's state funding.

This is where the lockbox might cause problems. The proposal talks about highways, bridges, airports and trains — but it doesn't mention state parks or recreation areas. Is the land under DNR's control really part of Illinois' transportation infrastructure?

Amendment backers say "probably." Todd Maisch is with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. He says he thinks questions about DNR funding have been "overblown," and that DNR's license plate money could be siloed into transportation purposes.

MAISCH: "They go to maintain the roads, the trails, the traffic safety, the Conservation Police that are out there on the roads as well. We're not going to say that it's not an issue to discuss, but we think the scope of the problem is really very limited."

State Sen. Bill Haine, a Democrat from Alton and lead sponsor of the lockbox, is even more confident.

HAINE: "When the license plate amount was sold to the General Assembly, they put in authority to spend some of the money elsewhere. But in theory, the road maintenance would take almost all of it. That's enough for me."

But not everyone is so sure.

HUTCHINSON: "Yes, I'm concerned that there could be an impact on DNR's funding stream. And I'm very concerned that that was missed."

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson was one of the lead sponsors of that $2 license plate fee. A Democrat from Olympia Fields, she and Haine are asking: Where was the Department of Natural Resources when the lockbox was being drafted this spring? Other agencies raised concerns and had them addressed. But not DNR.

HUTCHINSON: "So it's amazing to me that DNR would miss such a large piece of their funding when this came up. I mean, that's just incredible."

I called DNR to ask whether the agency thinks 12 percent of its funding is in danger. Spokesman Tim Schweitzer declined to speak on tape but emailed a statement. It reads: "When election results are known for the Lockbox Amendment, staff will do any evaluations necessary to determine its potential impacts on IDNR’s FY17 budget."

In other words, if you're a voter who was hoping the agency might help inform your decision about whether to support or oppose the lockbox — it would seem you're out of luck.

I'm Brian Mackey.

Brian Mackey covers state government for NPR Illinois. You can follow his reporting on Twitter and Facebook. A version of this story was first broadcast on Illinois Edition on October 18, 2016.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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