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Our view: Funding state parks

Cash-strapped state parks in Illinois are about to receive a financial reprieve from the state Legislature.

We support more funding for state parks through the implementation of a user fee, such as 43 other states already have.

The Legislature’s response: Forget about admission fees. Let’s just rob Peter to pay Paul.

In this case, “Peter” represents the millions of Illinois vehicle owners who will have to pay $2 more a year to renew their vehicle licenses. For people who do not have specialty plates, the fee will rise from $99 to $101.

And “Paul” represents the 324 state-owned parks, recreation areas and other sites.

Some people in the “Peter” category do visit state parks. Others do not.

Still, every “Peter” in Illinois will have to fork over extra money to assist “Paul.”

Vehicle owners aren’t the only “Peters” affected by the legislation.

New fees will be established for off-road recreation on state land and for commercial fishing.

All told, state parks can expect $18 million to $20 million more a year from license plate fees, and $12 million to $15 million more a year from the off-road recreation and commercial fishing fees.

Total new money raised by the new fees is estimated at $30 million to $35 million a year.

Add that to the $45 million regular annual budget (which used to be $107 million), and it sounds like a lot of money.

However, state parks have a backlog of maintenance projects estimated at $750 million because of previous budget cuts, so it could take awhile to catch up. And there are fewer workers now, 1,200 compared with 2,600 a decade ago.

State parks are a boon for Illinoisans. They also attract out-of-state tourists, but we’re not aware of any provision yet to tap those wallets.

Dozens of other states have no problem charging all park visitors, including out-of-staters, an admission fee. On-your-honor user fee systems, enforced by spot checks, have worked well elsewhere.

But Illinois won’t give it a try.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul is symbolic of state leaders’ inability to make tough decisions on difficult problems.

The state faces much thornier problems – pension reform, budget deficits and mounting debt among them. Will tough decisions be made? Or will state leaders look for the next Peter to rob?

Our advice: Hold onto your wallets.

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