Editor’s Note: The following editorial appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
One of the more contentious issues of this year’s tortuous budget deliberations was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s threat to close state parks to help bridge a budget gap of more than $20 billion. Many Californians who objected to the closures assumed their voices were heard – and the story had a happy ending – when a budget deal was reached and the governor announced that all 278 state parks could remain open.
But Californians who have since tried to visit their favorite park might quarrel with the definition of open when they suddenly see a “closed” sign on weekends or can no longer use certain campgrounds, parking lots, restrooms, picnic grounds or other facilities.
Even though no park has been officially shuttered, the system has taken a severe hit from the $14.2 million cut in the current fiscal year. The effects will be even more severe in fiscal 2010-11, when another $22.2 million will be slashed from the parks budget.
Democratic legislators had come up with a sensible plan to buffer the parks from an annual budget peril that intensifies when multibillion dollar deficits are threatening education and core social services. They proposed a $15 per-vehicle registration surcharge, with the revenue dedicated to preserving the parks system. In return, visitors entering the parks with California license plates on their vehicles would not have to pay the daily use charge, which ranges from $10 to $15.
Unfortunately, that vehicle-license plan was shot down by Republicans who opposed any new taxes to balance the budget.
The idea is coming back in the form of an initiative promoted by a coalition of parks supporters. Those groups have begun circulating petitions for a November 2010 ballot measure that would establish an $18 annual vehicle license fee and create the California State Parks and Wildlife Conservation Trust Fund. The fee would apply to cars, light trucks, motorcycles and recreational vehicles. Larger commercial vehicles and mobile homes would be exempt.
The fee would generate about $500 million a year, with 85% dedicated to state parks and 15% to other wildlife and ocean-protection agencies.
Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, said the governor’s threat to closed parks showed “the fragility” of the system in lean times. The foundation’s list of Facebook friends went from 500 to 50,000. “We were stunned by the level of support this issue engendered,” Goldstein said.
While we like the concept of a vehicle fee to sustain the parks, we would prefer that such taxing and budgeting decisions be made in the California Legislature. One of the reasons this state confronts such gridlock and dysfunction is the long string of voter-approved initiatives on spending and taxes that limit the Legislature’s prerogatives. A mandate that is locked-in by a voter initiative cannot be altered or lifted – regardless of how it is working or economic circumstances – without another statewide vote.
Schwarzenegger and legislators should take note of the outpouring of public concern that gave rise to this initiative. They should resurrect the proposal for a vehicle fee or come up with another creative proposal to provide a reliable source of funding for the parks.
Californians revere their state parks, which not only provide an affordable source of recreation, but preserve our history and natural treasures. The initiative drive has laid down a challenge to Sacramento: Protect the parks, or the voters may do it themselves.