SPRINGFIELD — Illinois state parks and natural areas should receive an infusion of money for improvements under legislation approved and sent to the governor's desk on Wednesday.
The program will cost Illinois motorists another $2 a year on their now-$99 regular license plate stickers. The fee increase, approved by state senators 39-11, is expected to raise as much as $20 million a year, half of which is to go to repairs and maintenance projects and the other half into staff.
"Passage of this bill will help us hire critical staff to maintain state parks, fix aging infrastructure, speed up regulatory functions and make a bigger difference in the lives of everyone we serve," said Department of Natural Resources Director Marc Miller in a statement.
The DNR has been especially hard hit by the state's budget crisis, losing about a third of its employees and more than half of its operating budget in the last 10 years.
Area senators were split on the fee increase (SB 1566) with Democrat Mike Frerichs of Champaign and Republican Shane Cultra of Onarga voting yes, and Republicans Bill Brady of Bloomington and Dale Righter of Mattoon voting no.
The House approved the increase last May, 61-56. The bill now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has said he supports the increase.
"I think both parties realize that if we want to protect our environment and our natural resources, this is something that we needed to do. That's why you saw it pass with overwhelming bipartisan support," Frerichs said. "People who support our state parks, who support our natural environment, who are avid sportsmen, they've all come out and said they support this. It's a bill that was supported by both the Sierra Club and the coal industry. You had a wide, diverse coalition of supporters."
Cultra said he backed the increase because "it's a user's fee. People who use the parks will pay."
He said "I don't think there's any doubt the money was needed by the DNR. They've been decimated by cutbacks."
Cultra said he hopes the money from the license fee increase ends up with the agency.
"Whether that means they'll actually get the money, this might generate some money and the Legislature could decide not to put as much money in next year," said Cultra, who is leaving the Legislature in January, after losing in a Republican primary election last March.