Senate OKs historic sites funding, BUT…

Meeting in special session on Tuesday, the Illinois Senate approved legislation designed to reverse the proposed closure of state historic sites, including the Vandalia Statehouse, and state parks.

But whether that action, OK’d on a 55-40 vote, will actually do that remains to be seen.

The supplemental spending bill approved by the Senate calls for taking $231 million from dedicated funds, with the majority of those funds to be spent on human service programs such as mental health, drug and alcohol dependency, domestic violence, homelessness and infant mortality, according to state Sen. Frank Watson (R-Greenville).

Watson said the legislation crafted by the Senate Democratic majority also includes funding for agriculture research grants to universities and regional soil and water conservation districts.

Because of budget cuts from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency planned to close 16 historic sites, including the Vandalia Statehouse. The sites were initially scheduled to close on Oct. 1, but that date was later pushed back to Oct. 15.

Now, according to Dave Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the closure date is Nov. 30 for both historic sites and parks.

Whether the Senate’s action can actually stave off the closure of all historic sites and parks, or just a portion of them, remains to be seen.

Blanchette, who was chosen to provide a response to the Senate’s action for both the IHPA and the governor’s office, said on Wednesday morning, “The governor’s office, as well as the agency (IHPA), is reviewing the legislation.

“It’s too early to tell what this means,” Blanchette said.

“We need to see how the legislation is drafted and look at such things as how the funds are being made available,” he said.

“The fact that the historic sites and parks are now not scheduled to close until Nov. 30 buys us a little more time to look this over and see what will happen,” he said.

In announcing on Tuesday evening that the Senate approved the funding for state sites and services, Watson, the Senate minority leader, expressed cautious optimism.

“There is no guarantee that the governor will spend the money in the areas detailed in the legislation,” Watson said.

He said the raiding of a variety of dedicated state funds “is a big price to pay by state taxpayers.

“This is another one-time revenue source, a policy which has contributed to the financial problems of state government today,” Watson told his colleagues.

The continuation of such a trend, he told other senators, means, “The problem only gets greater next year.”

To get the supplemental funds, he said, $15 million is being taken from tourism, the state’s second-biggest industry. That total includes $4.5 million from agriculture – the state’s largest industry – and county fairs.

“Now, that, to me, is not a good trade,” Watson said. “It’s a shell game.

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