Illinois must step up its game to get federal money to protect its environment

Other states have hired experienced consulting firms to coordinate grant requests, but environmentalists say our state has been slow to get going. Meanwhile, buckets of federal money are becoming available.

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The success of the Nov. 8 Cook County Forest Reserve referendum demonstrated public support for the environment.

The Beck Lake Forest Preserve. The success of the Nov. 8 Cook County Forest Reserve referendum demonstrated public support for the environment.

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llinois has to step up its game in protecting its environment.

Last year, the state enacted the Climate & Equitable Jobs Act, which was a big step forward. CEJA provided broad support for renewable energy initiatives, but it did not include nature-based solutions for the environment, which include such things as urban forests, wetland restoration, parks and green schoolyards.

Now, buckets of federal money are becoming available for environmental programs. The Inflation Reduction Act and the federal infrastructure bill will be a source of money for green initiatives. The Restoring America’s Wildlife Act, which could bring $1.4 billion to Illinois, has passed in the U.S. House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

But state agencies in Illinois will have to compete with other states to acquire available federal funds. While other states have hired experienced consulting firms to coordinate the writing of grant requests, environmentalists say Illinois has been slow to get going. That’s partly because the relevant state agencies remain short-staffed.

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If Illinois doesn’t make sure it has the people it needs in place to apply for grants and follow through on the applications, our state is going to lose out.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker says state agencies were hollowed out when he took office in 2019, which is correct. And they remain short-staffed. For example, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has half the staff it did at its peak, when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich took office in 2003. Environmentalists say the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency also has not recovered from staff cuts.

But Pritzker has Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature. The excuse of not having enough staff is getting a little threadbare, critics tell us.

And it’s not always about money. For instance, Pritzker did not appoint new unsalaried commissioners for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission for so long that all nine of the commissioners’ terms ran out, although he has recently appointed three new commissioners.

Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Sierra Club, said part of the problem is that even though Pritzker has increased the budgets for environment-related agencies, the state has struggled to fill those spots because of a history of disinvestment and other factors, which discourage young people who want to take bold action from applying.

“Illinois needs [people] to achieve the goals we set and revitalize these agencies, which are coming off of two decades of disinvestment,” Darin said. “We need the people to reignite the culture.”

The success of the Cook County Forest Preserve District’s Nov. 8 referendum, which won in every county precinct at a time of inflation, high gasoline prices and other financial worries, shows there is popular support for environmental initiatives.

But in an example of how short-staffing is affecting state programs, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has been slow to implement the workforce training hubs called for in CEJA, as reported by Brett Chase in the Dec. 11 Sun-Times.

During the pandemic, we’re told, understaffing made it hard for DCEO to administer Paycheck Protection Program loans and manage unemployment benefits, and the workforce training hubs went onto the back burner.

The DCEO now is in the process of putting out bids for nonprofits to manage the training hubs, but it has taken too long. Solar energy installations have taken off around the state since subsidies included in CEJA became available, but the people who qualify for the training are still waiting to get it so they can obtain jobs in the industry. That’s not how this law was supposed to work.

Illinois has a big job ahead of it. Seventy percent of the state is devoted to agriculture, and improving the state’s green profile will mean working with farmers to do such things as bringing prairie strips to farm fields and planting cover crops to slow erosion. Elsewhere, efforts need to be stepped up to protect and expand natural areas.

At a time when the United Nations Biodiversity Conference is meeting through Dec. 19 in Montreal, Illinois should be thinking about building on the success of CEJA to power up its efforts to protect the environment.

Stumbling along with understaffed state agencies won’t get the job done.

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