By Scott Reeder
SPRINGFIELD – Our cash-strapped state government has found a new use for its fleet of aircraft – flying birds into Illinois.
I kid you not.
State aircraft are flying to Kansas and transporting prairie chickens back to the Land of Lincoln.
And at a time state lawmakers are looking at raising the state income tax, Illinois state employees have been hiking across Kansas trapping these chickens.
Talk about fowl fiscal deeds.
State pilots have flown between Illinois and Kansas not once, not twice but 14 times this year taking prairie chickens to downstate Jasper and Marion counties.
“Illinois is the Prairie State and prairie chickens are an endangered species here, so we thought it would be a good idea to bring them back,” said Scott Simpson, site manager for Prairie Ridge State Natural Area in Newton, Ill.
The feds are chipping in $337,000 toward the program and the state will pay $117,000. Some of the cost to state government may be offset by private fundraising done by the Audubon Society, Simpson said.
That puts the total cost of the program at $455,000 for the next three years.
That’s hardly chicken scratch.
At a time when both our federal and state government are running massive deficits, is this really the best use of taxpayer money?
So far this year, the state has relocated 50 cocks and 41 hens. That puts the cost of the program at $1,166 per bird.
And the expenditure already has lawmakers grousing.
“This is an egregious abuse of tax dollars,” said state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth. “I don’t care if the money is coming from a grant or not. It doesn’t seem like a smart way to do business.”
Mitchell long has been a budget hawk, calling for the elimination of most of the state air fleet, which he said is mostly used to ferry lawmakers and other bigwigs between Chicago and Springfield. In 2013, the state spent $7.3 million operating its aircraft.
It would be much cheaper for lawmakers and others to drive or take a train.
It ought to be pointed out that this is all happening at a time that basic state services are being cut, state pensions are underfunded by more than $100 billion and Illinois has at least $6.7 billion in unpaid bills. And now lawmakers are backpedaling on their promise to let the “temporary” 67 percent income tax hike expire.
In other words, our fiscal chickens are coming home to roost.
Despite this, taxpayers are spending nearly half a million dollars to fly prairie chickens here.
That’s nothing to crow about.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokesman did not return calls seeking comment.
But it appears the state is spending the money and the taxpayers are getting the bird.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and a journalist with Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at [email protected]. Readers can subscribe to his free political newsletter by going to ILNEWS.ORG or follow his work on Twitter @scottreeder