Illinois Extension Future Is Up In Air

By Alma Gaul
LIVING IN IOWA, I don’t pay a great deal of attention to Illinois politics.

I’m listening now, though.

Because of what’s called a “budget impasse” in Springfield, projects and institutions all over the state are facing a shortfall of already-promised funds—for construction, schools, prisons, social service agencies and Extension.

“Extension” is of particular interest to me because these are the people who put on the gardening, ecology and birding classes I write about. They also organize the popular Nursery School at the i wireless Center, the Master Gardener program and the pioneering Master Naturalist program that teaches people how to be better stewards of the Earth and to pass that awareness on to others.

I call the Extension experts when I have questions, and they give me reliable, unbiased answers.

We don’t always think about the Extension Service because it operates somewhat in the background, but it is a conduit for all kinds of programs and services in our community that are offered for free or at little cost.

In addition to gardening, there’s 4-H (very big), family nutrition programs (also very big) and farm information, etc.

Extension services developed years ago as part of the federal land-grant university system. The government granted each state some land that could be sold to finance a college, and the colleges were to make sure that their knowledge and expertise got in the hands of regular people through programs that were an “extension” of the campus.

Thus Iowa State University in Ames and the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana oversee a network of offices throughout their respective states.

Money to run them comes from federal and state governments and from county taxpayers if they have approved referendums, as Rock Island County did some 12 years ago. (Scott County did, too, but we’re talking only Illinois here.)

Because Illinois legislators can’t agree on a budget, Gov. Rod Blagojevich is threatening to withhold an estimated $18 million for Extension statewide. In Rock Island County, that means a shortfall of $240,000 in already-promised funds, and director Michael Woods is compiling a list of proposed cuts to submit to his boss by May 1. That is the deadline Extension set for a statewide plan to deal with the crisis.

So far, Woods and his 32-person staff are looking at small things — making fewer copies, no bottled water, reduced travel, maybe a cheaper building — in hopes that, by cutting a little here and there, they won’t have to cut staff and, therefore, programs.

What’s discouraging about this is I always thought that if people knew the severity of a problem they would do something to fix it. I think the lawmakers in Springfield know — their constituents certainly have been telling them — but still the impasse continues.

Late last week, Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, called for Blagojevich to resign. The governor’s spokeswoman responded by saying that “state capitols are known for being full of hot air.”

Hot air? The citizens of Illinois deserve better.--Quad-City Times