In the past several years, the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Rod Blagojevich have tapped into funds set up for specific purposes to help balance the budget. But some of the funds within the DNR come with specific restrictions on their use — especially those where the money from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses is deposited.

Efforts to use some dedicated funds to pay bills could land the state of Illinois in trouble — again.


In the past several years, the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Rod Blagojevich have tapped into funds set up for specific purposes to help balance the budget.


The Illinois House of Representatives recently passed legislation authorizing $221 million to be taken from a long list of state funds, including more than $16 million from funds administered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.


The money would help bridge a budget gap that is forcing the closure of some state parks and historic sites before the end of the year.


But some of the funds within the DNR come with specific restrictions on their use — especially those where the money from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses is deposited.


States have to pass a law preventing the diversion of license fees to other uses in order to receive a share of a federal excise tax placed on the sale of shotgun shells, bows and arrows and other sporting goods. The state’s share is determined by a formula taking into account land area and the number of licenses sold.


And these funds cannot be used other than for wildlife and fish restoration projects. In other words, those people who hunt and fish pay for the maintenance of the resources they use and enjoy.


And more than once, the state has been warned not to use these funds for other than their intended purposes or risk losing all federal funding.


“Here we go again,” says Jerry Beverlin, a retired DNR administrator who continues to volunteer for the United Bowhunters of Illinois.


“About $9 million (in DNR special fund dollars) is all tied to federal funding,” he says. “And (diverting that money for other uses could) cost the state’s share. The feds could cut us off to the tune of $15 million — until you pay it back.”


In 2005, an audit of DNR released by Illinois auditor general William Holland’s office warned that the state was in danger of losing federal dollars when money was removed from the Wildlife and Fish Fund and Salmon Stamp Fund to pay a bill owed to Central Management Services for “efficiency initiatives.”


“Payments were also made from two license and stamp funds, which could be considered an illegal diversion of license revenues under federal law,” the report summary says. “Diversion of these funds through efficiency initiative payments could invalidate past and future funding from the USFWS (United States Fish and Wildlife Service).”


Also in 2005, the state proposed taking money from the Illinois Habitat Endowment Trust Fund. Hunters have to purchase a habitat stamp in order to be allowed to hunt in Illinois, and thus the habitat stamp fee is considered to be part of the hunting license.


That effort was eventually dropped.


The Senate must pass the fund sweeps OK’d by the House before they would become law. This week it was announced that the Senate will return to Springfield next week for a regular session.


Beverlin says some lawmakers rationalized the fund sweeps by saying that the amount put back into the budget from special funds was more than the original $14 million cut from DNR.


“Just the fact that you take it out and put it in the general revenue fund and give it back to them — it doesn’t matter what you do with it after it comes out; it’s already a diversion,” Beverlin says.


Beverlin says restricted funds can’t necessarily be used to operate state parks. Some park uses — such as stocking fish or buying land to expand hunting — would be covered, but not all operations.


“You could use Fish and Wildlife funds directly to operate a fish and wildlife area, but not to operate a park and canal,” he says.


Jonathan Goldman, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, says DNR advocates were caught off guard because the fund-sweeps bill was passed so quickly during the most recent special session.


“We were caught a little bit flat-footed,” he says. Normally, the IEC and the umbrella group Partners for Parks and Wildlife pay close attention to efforts to take money from the Natural Areas Acquisition Fund and the Open Space Land Acquisition and Development fund — two funds not tied to federal dollars but financed by a tax on real-estate sales.


“By the time we realized it, it was done,” he says.


Beverlin says he is disappointed DNR has not informed the governor’s office about potential conflicts with federal funding.


“You would think that the administration within DNR would have pointed these things out so it would be fairly clear to the governor’s office as to what the complications are,” he says. “Just as you would have thought they would have pointed out what the negatives are to closing parks.


“Closing Wolf Creek State Park, which makes hundreds of thousands of dollars in camping fees ... (it) comes as close to paying for itself as any park.”


Last Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn announced the launch of an online petition drive to encourage Blagojevich to keep the state parks and historic sites open. The new site is www.saveourstateparks.org.


Quinn wants the governor to restore funding to the parks while DNR advocates look at alternative funding sources, including closing a sales-tax loophole and exploring the possibility of dedicating a fraction of one percent of the sales tax to conservation.


“Conservation and natural resources have taken the brunt of these budget cuts over and over,” Quinn says. “It’s upside down, really.”


He says closing parks actually could end up costing the state more money if it turns out that federal funds spent at sites to be closed must be paid back.


“When you get federal funds to do certain things and then decide to close that thing down — I think they call it reversion — you have to give the money back,” he says. “That’s a budget mistake of high magnitude to try to be cutting down things and end up paying more money back to the feds than you are saving.”


Berverlin says he is concerned about DNR’s future.


“I don’t know where we’re going,” he says. “I really don’t. Every time you think it can’t get worse, it does.”


Chris Young can be reached at chris.young@sj-r.com or (217) 788-1528.


How federal conservation-program funding works


Special taxes were created in the 1930s to help fund conservation programs. Two programs provide the foundation for the federal government’s share.


--The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act was passed in 1937. It is commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act.


--In 1950, a similar program to support fisheries was started, known as the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, or the Dingell-Johnson Act.


Key points:


--The programs receive money from taxes — between 10 and 11 percent — on the purchase of firearms, ammunition, archery and fishing equipment.


--To participate, states had to pass laws to conserve fish and wildlife and include language that prohibits the diversion of money collected from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses to other uses.


--Money is divided among the states using a formula that takes various factors into account, including population and the physical size of the state along with the number of licenses sold.


--Definition of wildlife restoration projects: “selection, acquisition, restoration, rehabilitation, improvement and maintenance of areas of land or water adaptable as feeding, resting or breeding places for wildlife; also includes research into problems of wildlife management.”


--Definition of fish restoration projects: “The projects designed for the restoration and management of all species of fish which have material value in connection with sport or recreation in the marine and/or fresh waters of the U.S., including research into fish management and culture; the necessity and effects of fishing regulation; plans for restocking food and game fishes; and the acquisition, restoration, rehabilitation and improvement of land and water for fish hatching, feeding, resting or breeding.”


DNR funds that will be swept


Here are the funds within the Department of Natural Resources that will be swept if the Senate concurs.


--The Wildlife and Fish Fund: $5 million


--Conservation 2000: $3 million


--The Illinois Habitat Endowment Trust Fund: $2 million


--Parks and Conservation Fund: $2 million


--Illinois Habitat Fund: $1 million


--Boating Fund: $500,000


--State Migratory Waterfowl Stamp: $500,000


--Forestry Redevelopment Fund: $500,000


--Fish and Wildlife Endowment Fund: $500,000


--State Parks Fund: $500,000


--DNR Special Funds: $500,000


--Illinois Pheasant Fund: $250,000


--Environmental Protection Fund: $250,000