Counties throughout Illinois would use the same method to tax woodlands under compromise legislation pushed Thursday by a group of lawmakers and conservationists.
Various counties now tax timbered areas in different ways, said Rep. Dan Reitz, D-Steelville. Some consider them farmland, which has a relatively low tax rate. Others follow stricter guidelines issued in 2005 by the state Department of Revenue and tax them at full market value.
The difference in tax bills could amount to more than $50 an acre, Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, said during a Statehouse news conference.
Amendments to Senate Bill 17 would allow landowners to adopt a conservation management plan approved by the state Department of Natural Resources. That land would then be taxed at a fraction of its full value. The legislation reflects the findings of a legislative task force established to deal with the issue.
Sullivan said the bill would benefit not only landowners but the environment. When woodlands are taxed at a higher rate than farmland, he said, "the fear is that individuals would go out and start clearing land to put it into production, and this is land that should not be in production."
The management plan also could apply to prairies and wetlands, said Sen. John Jones, R-Mount Vernon.
He agreed with Sullivan that "some of this land doesn't need to be in production. Quite frankly, it'll all be in our rivers if we start farming it, and we don't want that."
"The conservation groups, environmental groups and sportsmen's groups are very excited about the conservation stewardship law," said Tom Schwartz, Illinois conservation director for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
To qualify, the land must be at least five contiguous acres. Landowners would have to reapply every 10 years, Reitz said.
The determination of whether a parcel would be taxed as farmland or conservation-managed land would be made according to its primary use, Reitz said. If more than 50 percent is in farm production, the entire amount would be taxed as farmland. If more than half is wooded or prairie or wetlands, the owner could apply for the conservation management program.
Landowners would be penalized if they decided to farm land they had put in the conservation program.
"We would have to look at this with an eye toward, in a given school district, what would be the impact for the tax revenue generated as it's currently assessed," said Deanna Sullivan, director of governmental relations for the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, which represents school administrators, principals, business officials and school boards. She said the association is still studying how the legislation would affect schools.
The bill has passed the Senate but was amended in the House. To become law, it would need to pass the House, again gain approval in the Senate and be signed by the governor. To pass during the General Assembly's current overtime session, it would need a three-fifths majority in both legislative chambers.
Dana Heupel can be reached at 788-1518 or email@example.com.