July 17, 2024

Eye On Illinois: Conservation districts feel budget cuts while fairgrounds get big investment

In the context of a $53.1 billion state budget, $4 million isn’t especially significant, about 0.075%.

But compared with only $58.1 million for a specific project, that $4 million is a larger chunk – about 6.9%.

The $4 million is what Michael Woods, executive director for the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said was cut from conservation efforts in the fiscal 2025 budget, according to a June 10 FarmProgress.com report.

The $58.1 million is what the Department of Agriculture said it spent on deferred maintenance and improvements at the State Fairgrounds earlier this decade. The figure comes from a Monday release (tinyurl.com/Fair2024Plan) touting a new master plan intended to increase “year-round events, attendance and revenue generation.”

Clearly, the state fair is about more than agriculture, and farming is more than conservation. But the timing of both issues invites comparison and questions.

According to Farm Progress (tinyurl.com/SWCDcuts), the money absent from the new state budget would’ve paid salaries for SWCD staff. Those people are important for their role in directing federal funding to local projects, which complicates the challenges of meeting next year’s deadline on 10-year goals for reducing nitrous and phosphorous loads.

I’ll be honest here, that kind of stuff flies over the head of a suburban kid a few generations removed from the family farm. But I also spent enough years covering county government in rural Iowa and Illinois to understand the many ways government can help and hinder the livelihoods of people who work the land.

On another hand, I’ve never been to the Illinois State Fair, and neither Mötley Crüe nor the Jonas Brothers are going to get me down there this August. But that’s no impediment to understanding the fair is a monumental event to many fellow Illinoisans and the practicality of maximizing revenue opportunities for a huge facility that needn’t sit idle.

One thing I have done is make annual March treks to West Allis, Wisconsin, for gymnastics meets at state fair buildings. We grumble about paying $10 to park each day and visit our favorite burger and custard joint before the drive home, and each time I wonder what’s happening in Springfield to make a little side money.

Both the fair master plan and conservation advocates acknowledge the challenges of comparing what happens here to other states, yet both try their best to draw parallels.

Other Midwestern state fairs have operating revenues from $14.8 million (Ohio) to $61 million (Minnesota), dwarfing Illinois’ $7.6 million. Indiana recently doubled its SWCD direct support, but that new level is not half what Illinois cut.

Ag remains a bedrock of the state economy. These spending decisions may not register with urban voters, but they are not insignificant.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on X @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

Scott Holland

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.