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Shawn Vestal: It’s time to decide what value we place on parks

Is it too soon to declare our state parks a complete failure and call in the profiteers? Or should we cut their budgets further first? Maybe to zero?

We are at an important moment, regarding state parks and honesty about what things cost and what they’re worth. The all-cuts superminority in Olympia has produced a sausage grinder that took parks funding from $94.5 million in 2007-09 to $8.3 million in the current biennium. With a steadfast refusal to close a loophole or raise a tax, and with the Supreme Court-ordered catch-up on educational funding in place, mere parks could hardly compete. The park system would simply become “self-sustaining.” Raise fees. Cut fat. Enlist donors. Fire workers. Get nimble.

Washington State Parks took a run at it. Two-hundred full-time jobs went away – a cut of a third. Programs were eliminated, donations pursued, leases and concession agreements scoured for opportunity. Maintenance and repair projects were put off. The state-funded portion of the parks budget dropped to 15 percent.

Was this deplorable or commendable? Depends on your point of view, I guess. The privateers and government-drowners – the people who see the for-profit world as the best solution for everything from education to warfare – were positively giddy. The Heartland Institute, a free-market advocacy group, celebrated the “rethinking” of Washington’s parks system in an article last year and acted as though it had already been successfully rethunk: “Washington state lawmakers are pioneering a plan for state parks to become self-sufficient. After being slowly weaned from millions of dollars in annual taxpayer assistance, Washington state parks will pay for their own maintenance and upkeep in 2013.”

A Fox News report claimed that Washington parks would have to get off “the public dole.”

Somehow, this didn’t work. A cut of 91 percent, it turns out, is less soluble to fantasies of easy, market-style efficiencies than some would have you believe.

A new report by the state Parks and Recreation Commission concludes what it should not take a new report to conclude: The parks system is on the threshold of economic collapse, threatening the nature and value of a statewide system of natural parklands for all to enjoy.

“To put it succinctly, State Parks is in an unsustainable financial situation,” according to the report. “While the agency has been able to effect a modest increase in revenues, these simply are not sufficient to cover the costs of running the park system.”

What comes next? This is a crucial moment in the story. Some might conclude that if we want a state parks system, then we will need to find a way to support it. The privateers tell a different tale, and they tell it slant.

The Washington Policy Center, a market idolatry factory, produced a sterling example of this rope-a-dope earlier this year in a blog post written by privatization advocate Leonard Gilroy. Scanning the 100-year-old Washington parks system, Gilroy concludes that: “The problem is not that there’s not enough general tax money being spent on parks …”

Of course not. The cuts that caused the problems are not the cause of the problems. Keep repeating this to yourself. The problem? Government. The solution? See if you can guess.

Rethinking. Public-private partnerships. Maybe some help from nonprofit organizations, but really, when you get right down to it, nonprofits and volunteers and the like aren’t where the opportunity is most significant: “The for-profit parks operation is even more interesting and presents a significant opportunity for Washington state …”

It’s a tidy little story, actually, nice and neat in the manner of the least-authentic fictions. Gov. Jay Inslee has not heard, or bought, the tale. He has called for putting a little more state general fund money back into the parks system, restoring it to about a third of the level it was in 2007-09. Without that, which would come from a tax package mostly directed toward the schools and based on an extension of a beer tax and the closing of some loopholes, Inslee claims that around 60 parks would have to be closed or made part-time.

This, Gilroy concludes, is a ploy to raise taxes.

It may be that this is what we want here in Washington. It may be that we simply prefer loopholes and taxation scaled heavily in favor of the wealthy to shared public amenities. Our recent legislative history makes it clear: No priority eclipses tax-averseness. It’s No. 1. No revenue of any kind will be raised against the cost of any public service, which shall always be colloquially considered to be cripplingly out of control, even when they’re not, just as taxes shall always be colloquially considered to be crushingly increasing, even when they’re not.

That’s just the way that story goes. We’ll have to figure out which we’d rather close: parks or loopholes.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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