Ag leader speaks out on budget, biofuels on area visit
MAHOMET – Phil Nelson's not at all optimistic about a graceful and timely resolution to budget issues tying Springfield in knots.
Nelson, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, said he'll be surprised if there's a budget by the time the Illinois State Fair starts in August.
"The budget's out of whack by $4 (billion) to $5 billion," said Nelson, who stopped by Vermilion and Champaign counties Thursday to talk to farmers. "We have $40 million in unfunded pension liabilities alone. And lawmakers are trying to put together a no-growth budget. They're no closer than they were at the start."
He told about 40 farmers gathered in Dick Parnell's rural Mahomet machine shed that agriculture leaders worry about what might end up on the table in the debates.
"What can be put on the table so the governor can save face?" he said. "If there's no state income tax and other proposals fall short ... We're looking at a $59 billion budget, and that's $8 billion growth in four years."
The agriculture community can live with an income tax increase as long as property tax relief accompanies it, Nelson said. He said that for the first time in a decade, Farm Bureau representatives have good access to House Speaker Mike Madigan and to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.
"There's a lot of jockeying for position in Springfield," Nelson said.
He said the governor's "holding bills hostage," not signing legislation that's gone through the General Assembly.
Nelson took full credit for the rain pounding down on Parnell's metal roof. "But it's been spotty across the state," said Nelson, a livestock and grain farmer from Seneca. "In eastern Vermilion County there's been no rain, and they're still worried. About two-thirds of Ohio and half of Indiana are dry."
Nelson said something that worries him is signs of a rift in the agricultural community.
"Filling demands of the biofuel industry and increasing our livestock business is a real challenge," he said. "The livestock industry's attacking ethanol because it increases their feed costs. That's a divisive wedge, livestock versus grain, and that's a worry. We're all in this together."
Tolono farmer Lin Warfel asked Nelson if he sees any progress encouraging development of other sources of biofuel, like cellulosic materials.
Nelson said the government has just issued large grants to three universities to help them investigate those possibilities but he said that because corn is so abundant, even at $4 a bushel it's a much cheaper source.
He said predictions are that half the biofuel used in the country is expected to come from cellulosic crops, but that's at least 10 years in the future.
Don Uchtmann, a University of Illinois agricultural law specialist, took notes while Nelson outlined issues concerning the Farm Bureau and farmers asked questions.
"I want to find out what's on the minds of the people," Uchtmann said. "I'm here to listen and participate."