By Benjamin Yount Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD — Of all of the cuts in Gov. Pat Quinn's $35.4 billion budget, the $600,000 pegged to be stripped from Soil and Water Conservation offices across the state could be the least sexy.
But it could also be one of the most controversial and most resisted.
Quinn has targeted some of the soil and water offices across the state to be closed or consolidated, but which ones is not yet known. Quinn budget chief, David Vaught, said with more than $5 billion in unpaid bills, the state cannot afford to operate some 100 Soil and Water Conservation offices across Illinois.
"Our focus in Soil and Water Conservation districts has to be on keeping pollutants out of the waterways," Vaught said. "And we could use a regional approach for the administration of those programs that spends less on administration."
The Soil and Water Conservation districts do precisely what the name suggests. Local offices work with land owners and local governments to protect open space and farm land, as well as watershed resources.
But, perhaps more importantly, Soil and Water Conservation districts capture millions of dollars in federal money. Some estimates put the return rate for state support close to 13-to-1, meaning that the $600,000 cut in Quinn's budget could cost much more.
State Senator John Sullivan, D-Rushville, said Illinois likely wouldn't lose every federal dollar for soil and water conservation. But he is quick to point out that the state needs every dollar it can find.
"The Soil and Water Conservation districts saw a reduction again this year," Sullivan said. "They've seen a reduction for the past several years, and it's going to have a real impact on each of the different counties and the work that they do."
Sullivan said he's concerned enough to want to talk with the Quinn administration about the cuts. And he won't be alone. The Illinois Farm Bureau, the state's biggest farm group, already is saying that it will make soil and water conservation cuts a top priority when thousands of farmers come to Springfield next month.
Philip Nelson, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, said former Gov. Rod Blagojevich looked at similar cuts and had his mind changed.
"Our goal is to basically sit down with the governor and have him explain to us what he has proposed and what he plans to get out of this," Nelson said. "We know, from past experiences, when governors have proposed some of these items (they) haven't taken into account some of the consequences long-term."
Nelson is not ready to condemn Quinn's planned cuts, or the rest of the new state budget, but he's not signing on to anything either.
Nelson said many farmers and the state's agri-business community are pleased to hear new talk of soybeans being sold to China and another phase of road, bridge, and school construction. But there are still not enough answers about the new budget.
"It came up a little short," he said. "We have concerns. How are you going to pay for these initiatives that he's laying out there."