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Eye on Boise: Idaho Parks has good, bad news for lawmakers

Sun., Feb. 2, 2014

BOISE – The good news Idaho Parks Director Nancy Merrill had for lawmakers at the department’s budget hearing last week: Idaho has sold more than 95,000 of its new parks passports in the first 12 months of sales, “bringing in over $1,077,000 – and that’s new money.”

The new $10 season passes, sold with vehicle registrations, also have brought more visibility and more visitors to state parks.

The bad news: Costs are rising for basics like personnel, utilities and fuel. So that’s where the money’s going, rather than to improve or expand parks.

“Our list of deferred maintenance needs continues to grow,” Merrill told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. So for next year, the parks department is requesting state funding for specific park needs, from repairing septic systems to fixing roofs, fishing platforms and a water slide.  

Gov. Butch Otter has recommended a $1.87 million boost in state funding for parks next year, which looks like a whopping 140 percent increase. But that’s nearly all taken up with a one-time allocation for $1.6 million in specific replacement items and repairs at state parks.

“We’ve worked hard over the past few years to reinvent ourselves and change the way we do business to keep each of these special places open,” Merrill said. “Our greatest need is to keep and take care of what we now have. We have done so much with so little, and we need these modest requests we bring before you today.”

This year’s state budget for parks was only $1.3 million in general funds, a tiny piece of the overall $33.4 million cost of running the parks. In fiscal year 2008, the parks budget received $17.7 million in state general funds. Under Otter’s budget proposal, state funds for parks next year would come to $3.2 million.

Merrill said the parks have been generating new funds by selling firewood, renting paddleboards, canoes and sand-boards, marketing parks as venues for weddings and special events, adding partnerships and concessions, and adding camper cabins and other revenue-generating improvements. She said RV license fees that were tapped as a “bridge” funding source still are being tapped. “Until we come up with a new revenue source of that amount, we will have to continue to use those,” she said. About $1.5 million a year in RV funds are being used “to keep the parks going,” Merrill said.

House backs primacy

The Idaho House has voted 62-0 in favor of having the state take over primacy for wastewater permitting under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES.

Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, touted the “local control and more flexibility that is always inherent when we have a state agency there.” He noted that by 2022, the bill anticipates that the state Department of Environmental Quality, which would take over the program from the federal Environmental Protection Agency in a phase-in, would need 25 additional full-time employees.

Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, said it isn’t a new issue. Lawmakers contemplated the move in past years, but the economic downturn made funding impossible, he said. “I’m very appreciative of the fact that this bill has been brought before us and has a phase-in approach.”

The bill, HB 406, now moves to the Senate. Idaho is one of just four states without primacy for the program.

Dual service questioned

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, is promoting legislation to ban state lawmakers from holding any local elected position, from highway commissioner to sewer board to city councilor. His bill, HB 368, narrowly cleared a House committee last week, but only after opposition from nearly half the committee and from the Idaho School Boards Association, all of whom said the issue should be left up to local voters.

It was up for a vote in the House on Friday, but House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, who had supported the measure, instead pulled it and sent it to the House’s amending order for changes. “It was not anticipated that we’d go quite as deep in the election process with the dual service restriction,” Loertscher explained.

Alternative budget

Wayne Hoffman’s Idaho Freedom Foundation released its own alternative state budget last week, though the group has not yet filled in many of the details. It calls for $180 million in tax cuts and no funding for the governor’s task force recommendations for improving schools, which Otter has called the state’s top priority.

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