Source: The State Journal-Register
The Illinois General Assembly must act this month to restore $9.25 million in restricted funds "swept" to pay state bills or risk losing millions in federal dollars for fish and wildlife management.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office a letter Dec. 19 stating that any transfer of hunting and fishing license fees to pay other state expenses would violate federal law.
The Fish and Wildlife Service had warned the state against the transfers in a letter on Oct. 6.
The money is part of $221 million swept last fall from a long list of special state funds to help close Illinois' budget gap. Included were six funds that are repositories for hunting and fishing license, stamp and other fees.
States receive a share of excise taxes collected on the purchase of sporting goods, such as fishing rods and reels and shotgun shells, if they agree not to spend money generated by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, stamps and related fees on things other than managing wildlife and fish restoration projects.
Illinois' estimated share of federal funds for fiscal 2009 is about $16 million. The letter from Thomas Melius, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Fort Snelling, Minn., noted that Blagojevich was advised of fund transfers were illegal, but signed the bill into law the next day.
The "swept" money is being used to keep open some state parks targeted for closure and to restore other cuts, including for substance abuse treatment centers throughout Illinois.
Blagojevich vetoed $55 million of the $221 million authorized by the legislation to be swept from the funds, much more than the $9.25 million questioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service, according to a letter sent Dec. 16 by Kevin Hovis, general counsel in the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.
Half of the $9.25 million already has been transferred from the dedicated funds.
"None of the money transferred from the Funds in accordance with the Act has been spent by the state," Hovis wrote. "The transferred money remains untouched in a separate and distinct State fund."
Legislative action is needed to return DNR funds "from which they originated," Hovis added.
Aaron Kuehl, conservation director for Illinois Pheasants Forever, said he is concerned that distractions caused by the possible impeachment of Blagojevich may bring other work to a halt at the Capitol, causing Illinois to miss the Fish and Wildlife Service's deadline.
Feb. 2 is 45 days from the Dec. 19 date stamped on the letter.
State Rep. Dan Reitz, D-Sparta, said concerns about inaction are legitimate.
"We're really not functioning on any level," Reitz said. "A lot of problems and concerns are not going to be addressed until we finish the impeachment process and move on.
Still, Reitz said he remains hopeful the legislature can restore the transfers in the first week of the new session that starts Jan. 14.
While the rules have always stated a loss of federal funds was possible, Kuehl said it could be good for everyone to see that the rules have teeth.
"Long term, this could be a good thing for these funds," he said. "Now, the (Fish and Wildlife Service) has taken it a step farther, and we have a letter saying this is wrong.
"Hopefully, we won't be revisiting this in the future."
Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.