2015 may be a new year, but Illinois leaders will spend it dealing with an old problem: Budget Shortfalls and the possibility of diminished state funding will likely make headlines throughout the year.
This week, WSIU's News team takes a closer look at Illinois' fiscal status - a week before Bruce Rauner takes his oath of office as the state's new governor.
"I really hate to speculate on what could possibly happen. But what really sets southern Illinois apart from the rest of the state is our concentration of natural areas, our natural beauty, and some of the different parks and resources that we have."
That is John Wallace of the Shawnee chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society, talking about the bounty of public lands administered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, or IDNR - a department that could take a major budget hit now that the Illinois income tax rate has fallen to 3.75%, down from 5%.
And with a new administration in Springfield set to take over in just a matter of days, many are speculating about reports of budget reductions of up to 30% for some state agencies.
For some years now, IDNR's budget, like that of many other state agencies, has seen a steady overall decrease.
"In 2000 their annual budget was 107 million dollars and by 2012 there budget was down to less than 50 million."
That's Ruth Kelly of the Shawnee Group of the Sierra Club. She's been doing her homework and, armed with a stack of budget papers, she continues. "Another thing I can mention is in 2000 Giant City State park had 13 employees, by 2012 they were down to six I believe."
For many, spending time outdoors is a great way to refresh and just, get out and be. But in addition to these aesthetic pleasures, the natural lands administered by the IDNR can also be translated to hard dollar figures.
"Last year they produced over $185 million in tourism expenditures and I can tell you that a large portion of that would be driven by outdoor recreation."
That's Cindy Cain, Executive Director of the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau which covers the counties of Alexander, Hardin, Jackson, Johnson, Massac, Pope, Pulaski and Union counties.
So that is a lot at stake when Springfield tackles the tough problems of getting Illinois’ budget back in balance. And over the last decade IDNR has accepted quite a few cuts.
Here is Henry Mulder, Secretary of the Shawnee Chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society: "If they got a 30 percent areas would be closed, employees would not be replaced, new areas would not be developed, maintenance and those kind of things would be put off, and that’s been going on with the state now for many years so IDNR takes the hit every time."
And Terry Treacy, the Springfield Illinois Representative for the Sierra Club of Illinois, said in an e-mail to WSIU radio: “Sierra Club is very concerned about any potential cuts to the IDNR budget. For years the disproportionate cuts to the IDNR budget has caused a huge loss in professional staff and public services.”
So, 2015 begins with a new governor and a looming budget deficit, and there is a lot of uncertainty.
One thing is for certain though, despite the amount of money that IDNR will have to work with, or not have to work with, Illinois’ natural resources will continue to attract people. Figures provided by the IDNR show that in Fiscal year 2014, 40-million people visited Illinois’ State parks. So the need for money will be matched, or even exceeded by the desire for people to connect with the outdoors.
Carbondale's John Wallace will continue to advocate.
"Well, Aldo Leopold, the famous conservationist once said that some people can live without wild places and others cannot. Well,I fall into that others category. I cannot. I need to go out to nature to be re-energized, to you know, to get spiritual growth from, and, to just enjoy the beauty."