State ag director wants higher fees to make department independently funded
Illinois’ budget mess has reached the point that the director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture said Thursday it can no longer rely on the state’s general-revenue checkbook to pay for farm programs.
Tom Jennings wants to eventually make the agency self-supporting, and he has proposed starting with fee increases expected to bring in $2.9 million annually. The proposal includes raising more than two dozen fees ranging from fuel-pump inspections to costlier state fair admissions and charges for previously free services.
“We haven’t any choice. We can’t continue to operate off of general revenue when we’re in the tank like we are,” Jennings said after an address to about 200 participants in the annual Illinois Agriculture Legislative Day.
The fee increases are a small piece of the estimated $39.1 million the agriculture department receives in general revenue. It also benefits from federal funds handled by the state.
Even if his plans are approved, it will take years to wean the agency from general revenue, Jennings said. However, he added, it’s important to start.
“It’s unsustainable right now. There’s not sufficient tax revenue flowing to the general revenue fund,” Jennings said.
The idea won praise Thursday from Gov. Pat Quinn. Quinn said after addressing the farm group that “modest increases” in fees should play a role in balancing the state budget.
“We’re going to have to do the best we can with reasonable fees to provide those services,” Quinn said. “If we don’t do it, the state will be insolvent. I don’t believe in letting that happen. It won’t happen on my watch.”
The legislative director of the Illinois Farm Bureau, Kevin Semlow, said the group isn’t necessarily opposed to fee increases, but farmers also want assurances the money won’t be diverted for other state expenses.
“We have gone that way in many programs, but with the fund sweeps that we’ve seen, we take the funds that our members pay, and then they sweep them, and they go into the general revenue pot,” Semlow said.
In the past, he added, some fees have gone up, but services to farmers still have been cut.
Semlow said a state road construction bill also is high on the priority list for the farm group for the spring legislative session.
“If there is a capital bill, now is a time to talk about those things and say that, if we’re going to increase road funding, we need to be looking at more access for our farmers to get to the markets,” Semlow said.
Tim Landis can be reached at (217) 788-1536 firstname.lastname@example.org.