Red Burchyett is getting his wheelchair and his job back.
Thats good news for Mr. Burchyett, who was laid off several weeks ago from his mechanics job at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Ten years ago, the state bought him a customized wheelchair that helped him do his job by raising him to a standing position. When he was laid off, the state told him he couldnt take his wheelchair with him.
The Southern Illinoisan newspaper published a story about Burchyett at the time and nothing happened. Last Friday, the Chicago Tribune ran a piece about the incident, and by 8:30 that very morning, Governor Rod Blagojevichs office issued a press release announcing that DNR had been ordered to give Burchyett both his wheelchair and his old job.
I guess we know which newspaper the governor reads.
Im happy for Burchyett, but the problems at DNR go far deeper than one mans travails.
The director of DNR is former state Rep. Joel Brunsvold, a truly good guy who has wanted to run the agency for as long as I can remember. When fellow Democrat Rod Blagojevich was elected, Brunsvold finally got his chance. But it hasnt turned out the way hed hoped.
George Ryans early retirement program for state employees slashed DNRs payroll to the bone, then Blagojevich cut its spending even further in an attempt to help balance the state budget.
Brunsvold was even ordered by the governors office to fire one of his best friends after he publicly complained about some of the cuts. And a longtime DNR budget officer who was loyal to the agency was forced out and replaced by someone handpicked by the governors budget director. The result is that the governors office can now raid DNRs budget almost at will. In the past two years alone, DNRs employee headcount has been slashed from 2,300 to 1,700, with 87 laid off in January alone.
Why should you pay attention to any of this? After all, theyre just state bureaucrats. Nobody wants to pay higher taxes.
Heres why. The Department of Natural Resources manages state parks, wildlife areas and open spaces. Each generation is entrusted with maintaining and improving these precious resources before passing them along. And were not doing a very good job.
Many of the local and regional site managers have been replaced with Democratic political hacks who have little or no experience. Skilled, experienced managers might be able to juggle things long enough to ride out the budgetary storm. The hacks have neither the skill nor the experience to keep things on an even keel. Sportsmen and conservationists throughout the state are rightly concerned that were heading for an implosion.
Until the Tribune ran the story about Mr. Burchyett, the governor had shown little interest in the agency, other than a source of cash for the rest of his ever-increasing budget and a source of jobs for his political supporters. Last year, he tried to purge the agency of scientists and trained field researchers until the General Assembly stopped him in his tracks.
The governor has yet to even visit a state park, depending on the yes-men and women hes surrounded himself with to reassure him that everything is fine. Until the Tribune took up Mr. Burchyetts cause, the stock response from the governor every time somebody complained about the DNR cuts was to say, essentially, "Ive got other priorities."
Bob Grosso knows about those "priorities." Grosso retired last year after 31 years at DNR, the last several as the site superintendent of Illinois Beach State Park. Grosso worked for Democrat Dan Walker when he was first hired, and he voted for Blagojevich in 2002. But Grosso told the Sun-Times in December that Blagojevich was "dismantling the department," and replacing hardworking employees with Democratic county party chairmen in order to "build a patronage army in Illinois."
Unlike the governor, Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn is an outdoors enthusiast who often visits state parks and wildlife areas. Quinn wants to end a $25 million state subsidy to mostly out-of-state companies that extract methane gas from landfills and use that money to help preserve and improve the states parks and areas along Illinois waterways.
Its a good idea, and even if its rejected by the Legislature (as has happened many times before), it is a good start in the debate. Preserving our states natural heritage requires a lot more than issuing a feel-good press release about returning a mans wheelchair.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.