WINTER SPORTS -- The Washington Legislature is toying with proposals that could divert dedicated gas-tax funds from established and popular Sno-Park programs. These are the programs, such as those at Mount Spokane, that plow parking areas and groom trails for snowmobiling, cross-country skiers, snowshoers and other winter recreation.
Some recreation groups say there's nothing to fear from the proposals, but the issues should be carefully followed.
See the latest on what some contend is an attempt to raid an important winter recreation component of the state's economy in this story by Scott Sandsberry of the Yakima Herald-Republic.
By SCOTT SANDSBERRY
Winter recreationists have gotten wind of what they think are some budget shenanigans that they say could make snowmobiling and cross-country skiing a lot less desirable in the state.
As with almost everything in Olympia these days, it’s about the gaping, $1.5 billion budget deficit. And recreationists worry their dedicated funding stream is about to be diverted into plugging other budget holes.
There’s some history to support their fears.
In 2009, after the Legislature “swept,” or removed, $9.5 million from a dedicated fund of off-road vehicle gas tax revenue into the general fund, an off-road vehicle group sued the state and lost.
The state won again on appeal, in a two-to-one split decision.
Now the Washington Off Highway Vehicle Alliance is ready to take the issue to the Washington Supreme Court if the budget process again takes money from the Nonhighway and Offroad Vehicle Activities (NOVA) for general-fund purposes.
This time, though, the alliance might just have allies — if, as many expect, the legislators crafting the budget rake into it not just the nonhighway and off-road vehicle funds but also the state’s marine fuel tax account and, for the first time, the money that supports the state’s winter recreation program.
“It’s not a done deal yet, but we heard about it last Wednesday,” said Dan Fallstrom, legislative chairman for the Washington State Snowmobile Association. “(People supporting) the snowmobile, NOVA and marine accounts all have to be proactive.”
Fallstrom said he heard from one legislator the sweeps would be in the budget and from another who said they wouldn’t. Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said it’s premature even to have that conversation.
“The House has not released a budget. The Senate has not released a budget. So nobody can tell you what’s in or what’s not in the budget at this time, and I’m not going to,” Hunter said. “We haven’t made any decisions.”
Told that representatives of off-road, snowmobile and boating groups believe their dedicated accounts are on the chopping block, Hunter said, “There is no basis for them to believe that. They could be afraid of it. (Those funds) have been swept in the past.”
Rep. Charles Ross, R-Naches, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said House Republicans “have been battling against sweeping (recreation) accounts from day one.”
Democrats have a 56-42 majority in the House, though, and Ross said he expects the Democrats’ proposed operating budget to remove those recreation funds. He said House Republicans’ “comparative budget” would leave them in place.
“When you create an account that’s supposed to serve a specific purpose and then take it to use for another purpose, all that does is erode trust in governmental office and in the government,” Ross said. “And I hate to see that.”
The dedicated snowmobile fund, which typically runs between $2.1 and $2.6 million, receives nothing from the general fund and runs entirely on snowmobile registrations and a percentage of the gas tax. Each year’s trail-grooming and Sno-Park expenses (including lot-clearing and sanitation) are paid with funds accrued over the previous season.
Without that fund, said Pamela McConkey, who manages the Washington State Parks Winter Recreation Program, the program would have to run based on projected revenue for the current season, which is risky.
If revenue came in lower than projected, “We would have to cut off a contract,” McConkey said — meaning snowmobilers couldn’t count on groomed trails, snow-cleared, sanitation-friendly Sno-Parks.
“If you take our snowmobile funds, you effectively shut us down,” said state snowmobile association spokesman Matt Mead. “If you take our money, we don’t have a place to park, let alone get out on the trails. So it’s severe for us.
“We’re also making the case that we put a lot of money into the state’s economy through tax revenues. The money they take, for them it’s going to look like a pittance to what we’re not going to be putting into the system. Nobody’s buying gas, nobody’s staying in hotels and eating in restaurants. If we can’t go snowmobiling, a lot of people are just going to stay home.”
And it won’t be just snowmobilers if, as McConkey believes, the fund supporting the nonmotorized Sno-Parks used by cross-country skiers and snowshoers are at risk.
“My assumption is (legislators) would sweep both programs, the snowmobile program and the nonmotorized program, which is also self-supported,” McConkey said.
The other dedicated fund that may be in the budget-makers’ crosshairs is the Boating Facilities Program, administered by the state’s Recreation and Conservation Office. The fund typically has $8 million or more that are split between marine-related state agency projects and city, county and port projects.
“It had never been swept until 2009, and obviously we complained wildly about that,” said Doug Levy, state lobbyist for the Recreational Boating Association of Washington and its 30,000-plus boaters.
“We’re obviously on guard against it being swept in this budget. This is the month of the rumor, because a lot of rumors are swirling around the capital. I think the good news is there are a lot of legislators ... (who) don’t think it’s a good idea to be willy-nilly shifting money from dedicated funds into other areas, who think that’s a very unsustainable way of doing budgeting.”
Until the budget actually becomes public, no one knows if the recreation money will even be moved into the general budget. But Tod Petersen, political action committee chairman for the Washington Off Highway Vehicle Alliance, said the state’s victory in the 2009 court case over that year’s funds sweep make the prospect much more likely.
“That’s one mindset that’s out there: The Legislature has seen that it got away with it (and) they feel like they can get away with it again,” Petersen said. “We have an appeal in for the State Supreme Court; the attorney general’s response to that is, because the Legislature didn’t take our money in 2011, it’s not an issue.
“Well, if they take it in 2012, that removes the attorney general’s case that the case is moot.”
Fallstrom, the snowmobilers’ legislative chair, found a bit of irony in the current plight of the state’s recreation funding. Just last fall, Gov. Chris Gregoire, as chairwoman of the Western Governors’ Association, unveiled its “Get Out West” program for the “growing the tourism and recreation economies in the West.”
The governors’ association is scheduled to have its annual meeting June 9-12 in Cle Elum — a community heavily dependent on snowmobiling, skiing and other recreation-related tourism.
“It would be awful embarrassing for the governor,” Fallstrom said, “if our recreational accounts were swept and there were pickets out there (at the Cle Elum meeting) complaining that this state’s recreational opportunities are going into the tank.”
Or, perhaps, to other western states.
“If you take our money and we have no recreation this year, who in their right mind would register a snowmobile next year? That’s what’s going to happen. A lot of people aren’t going to bother,” said Mead, the state snowmobile spokesman.
“Personally, if we lose the money, I’m going to register in Oregon.”