Register Your Car, Save a State Park

 
 Photo courtesy of Arizona State Parks
Arizona's Lyman Lake State Park closed on Feb. 22, one of 21 parks expected to close this year because of budget cuts. The park system lost $8.6 million in funding this year, forcing officials to close the parks.

Russ Jones, a Republican member of Arizona's House of Representatives, describes himself as "a pretty conservative guy when it comes to taxes." But Jones has spent the past few weeks fighting to raise more revenue.

Why?

Like in many states, crippling budget shortfalls have threatened to close Arizona state parks. But fierce citizen opposition to the closures has pushed lawmakers, including Jones, to find ways to protect them from the vagaries of state budgets.

Under Jones' bill, voters would get to decide whether they want to pay an extra $12 to renew a vehicle registration. Of that, $9 would go to fund state parks and the remaining $3 would reopen shuttered highway rest stops.

The idea has been spreading for the past couple of years, particularly in Western states, as lawmakers increasingly turn to vehicle fees to make up for drastic cuts in state park funding. Arizona, California, Washington, Idaho and Michigan have either recently increased fees or are considering it this year. Their proposals have picked up support from both parties, despite widespread objections to raising taxes and fees in a recession.

The model is Montana, which imposed a $4 registration fee in 2004 to resolve a park funding crisis. The fee gives residents free access to the parks, and those who object to it can opt out but give up their right to visit state parks for free. Between 80 and 85 percent of the state's drivers pay the fee, which has freed the park system from the state's general fund, says Chas Van Genderen, Montana's state park director. Van Genderen has fielded calls from other states looking to replicate the model. Washington last year imposed a similar $5 fee.

Jones' bill has run into a roadblock from a fellow anti-tax Republican lawmaker who refuses to let it out of committee. Jones acknowledges that what he is proposing could be considered a tax increase. But since the legislature has routinely diverted money intended for the parks to other uses, the state needs to make good on its obligations to its recreation areas, he says. Arizona parks are getting no money from the state general fund.

The wrangling is being closely watched by Karin Hanson, co-owner of Iggy's Country Cooking in St. John's, an eastern Arizona town of 3,500 people and four restaurants that sits about 15 minutes away from Lyman Lake State Park.

Lyman Lake closed in February, among the first in a planned wave of park closures that is expected to claim 21 of Arizona's 30 parks. So far, Hanson's restaurant hasn't been hurt much by the closure, but she's worried about the summer, when the park would fill up with campers and boaters who would often make the short drive into town for her steak, shrimp, catfish and 17 types of hamburgers.

Normally, Hanson is dead set against higher taxes. But ask her whether she supports the vehicle fee increase and she doesn't hesitate: "I would only because the parks should be open."

Apache County, which encompasses both St. John's and Lyman Lake, suffered a nearly 16 percent unemployment rate in January, one of the highest in the state. Tourism is a big industry in the county, as reflected in the $2.4 million in county income and 35 jobs generated by Lyman Lake State Park in 2007, according to a state study.

 

Last fall, Arizona closed 13 of its 18 highway rest stops, a move that has also sparked outrage. Funding from Jones' resolution could reopen some of them.

In California, the Mendocino County Central Republican Committee endorsed an unsuccessful measure last year to increase vehicle registration fees to fund state parks. Now the California State Park Foundation is gathering signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.

California's park systems has been underfunded for years and needs more than $1 billion worth of maintenance. Last year, the state cut $14.2 million, forcing park officials to consider closing as many as 220 of California's 278 state parks. Faced with a backlash, state officials promised to reinstate the funding after a year. In exchange, the parks didn't close but officials cut back on hours and some services.

In January, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed allowing oil drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara and using the revenues to fund state parks. Park advocates prefer a mandatory $18 fee on all vehicle registrations to fund the parks and are gathering signatures for their ballot initiative.

A dedicated source of money would be a boon for state parks, says Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Park Foundation . "What happens is the department comes off the general fund and all of their general fund money goes back into the pot," she says.

In Idaho, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle is working on a proposal modeled on Montana's system that would raise the state's vehicle license fee by $6 and direct most of the revenue to the state park system. The bill includes an opt-out provision for people who do not want to pay the fee.

"It's not a tax increase. They can opt out and they don't have to pay it," says Moyle, a Republican.

If people choose to do nothing, though, they will automatically pay the fee increase. That provision makes the program easier to administer, Moyle says, even though it has drawn some criticism. For that reason, the bill likely won't be introduced until next year, he says. "The governor and the legislature have been trying to find a way for a lot of these agencies to be self-funded," Moyle says. "The governor's trying to wean them off general fund money."

Not everyone has embraced this concept. A Washington lawmaker last year called that state's vehicle license fee raise a "camouflage tax increase."

Virginia's parks director Joe Elton says he would prefer state governments adequately fund parks rather than create new revenue streams. "Why invent a lot of new ways to get into the taxpayers' pockets? Let's recognize what the needs are," he says. "I'd like to hold the line on the notion that it's a core function of government."

At the same time, while license fees protect parks from state budget cuts, they tend to bring in roughly the same amount of money every year, which makes it hard for parks to deal with increased maintenance needs and expansion. "Our funding is static," says Montana's Van Genderen, adding that he plans to work with lawmakers on ways to increase his agency's revenue.

Park advocates in Arizona haven't given up hope that they will be able to reopen the two closed parks there and fend off further closures. One group that has participated in these behind-the-scenes efforts is the St. John's Chamber of Commerce. Every year, the chamber organizes a Fourth of July fireworks display at Lyman Lake State Park that draws people from all over the area. If the park is still closed by July, it's unclear where the fireworks display will be held, according to Jim Pierson, the chamber's executive director.

"We're hoping the park stays open," he says. "We're working on it."

 
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