January 12, 2012 in Opinion

Editorial: New bill good start for state parks budget

 

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Washington will soon undertake a small experiment in supply-side economics, in its parks, of all places.

Last spring, the state Parks and Recreation Commission began selling $30 Discover Passes, with the expectation the tabs would generate $32.1 million in annual revenues to offset cutbacks in general fund appropriations for state parks. Lawmakers want to cut off park funding entirely within a few years.

Parks used to get 66 percent of their operating funds from the general fund, but that has been cut back to 17 percent in this biennium.

But the revenue projection, made just last March, was far too optimistic. The parks were given little time to get the pass program under way. Many park users, whose opposition killed a $5 parking fee a few years ago, were blindsided by the pass requirement.

A November revision dropped projected revenues to $20.2 million. Multivehicle families – park users fit the profile almost perfectly – balked at the necessity of getting multiple tags for domestic fleets that might include trucks, SUVs and sedans.

Many bought $10 day passes, not much of a solution if, for example, you have a family that likes to take frequent float trips on the Little Spokane River.

The supply-side solution: transferable passes with two license plate numbers, not one. The state’s take from pass sales rebounds to $31.7 million, nearly the level projected a year ago because more people will buy them.

At least that’s the estimate from the fiscal note attached to SB 5977, which passed out of the Senate Energy, Natural Resources & Marine Waters Committee Wednesday. Testimony was universally supportive from a cast that does not often work from the same page: spokesmen for the Pacific Northwest Four Wheel Drive Association, Back Country Horsemen and Washington Trails Association among them. There was no opposition.

The bill now goes to the Senate Rules Committee. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives will consider its own version of the bill, which as an emergency measure will take effect as soon as it is signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

If only that would solve all the financial challenges facing the state’s parks, which will celebrate their centennial year in 2013.

To bring its budget into line with lower revenues, many park rangers and maintenance employees are being cut back to seasonal status. Olympia staff has been reduced 20 percent.

The commission has looked to increasing services, establishing partnerships and sponsorships, and creating a foundation that can provide sustained funding as part of a “transformation strategy” that will have it running more like a self-sustaining business than a government agency. Revenues from pass sales are fundamental to fulfilling that vision.

With so many state departments and services facing budget cuts, free-standing state parks could provide financial and recreational release for Washington residents. And, maybe, a template for other agencies.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.


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