With the failure of our state Legislature to resolve how to fund our state parks system, a broad coalition of supporters have taken the issue into their own hands and successfully qualified a state parks initiative — the State Parks and Wildlife Conservation Trust Fund Act — for the Nov. 2 ballot.
With Proposition 21, Californian’s will be given a real choice to provide a permanent, dedicated source of revenue to keep our 278 state parks open and operational. Yet a new threat — the position of Assembly and Senate Democrats to the state’s protracted budget impasse — could seriously jeopardize its chances of success.
What Proposition 21 will do: Proposition 21 will increase annual vehicle registration fees by $18 per vehicle and in return will allow Californians free daytime access to California’s state parks. That $18 surcharge will raise $500 million annually to restore, maintain and improve our state parks for present and future generations to enjoy.
In addition, the $130 million in the state’s General Fund that it currently spends on state parks would be returned to that fund to address other vital needs such as schools, health care and public safety. It is a small price to pay for free access to our rich diversity of state parks and freedom from worry that our Legislature might shortchange our parks in the future.
Why it is needed: For years, our state parks system has suffered from chronic underfunding. With California facing yet another $19 billion deficit, and with state parks forced to compete for revenue from a troubled general fund, our state parks have been in jeopardy for too long.
Just last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed shutting down as many as 220 of the state’s 278 parks. In the end, the governor relented and the parks stayed open, but with reduced hours, fewer services, closed restrooms and high fees. The expense of deferred maintenance and needed improvements to our state parks now stands at more than $1 billion and climbing.
Ironically, with the governor’s May 2010 budget revise, state parks and education were the only two apparent winners. However, the governor was counting on revenue from offshore oil drilling to raise $100 million for parks in this year’s budget and another $119 million next year.
There must have been many in the parks and conservation community who were less thrilled to depend on such a source of revenue to sustain parks, but Schwarzenegger quickly backed off the offshore oil drilling proposal in the face of the BP Gulf oil disaster. So now, where will their funding come from? Apparently, neither the governor nor the state Legislature has a clue.
Our state parks are too important to leave their funding to chance and to the whims of a dysfunctional state Legislature. They are essential to our economic and physical health, to protecting our air and water and to preserving the diversity of plants, animals and historical assets for young and old alike. They need and deserve the stable, dedicated source of funding that Proposition 21 can provide.
The latest threat: Asking Californians to approve an increase in their vehicle registration fees in today’s toxic political atmosphere that is so hostile to raising taxes is no small challenge. But the Democratic leadership’s response to the governor’s budget position may obliterate its chances of success.
With Democrats advocating a budget that will depend on nearly $5 billion in tax hikes, including a 30 percent jump in vehicle license fees, initiative backers may find this a much steeper hill to climb.
Hopefully, park advocates will prevail upon state legislators to back off their proposal to boost vehicle license fees to a far greater degree than that proposed by Proposition 21.
I’m not sure who it was that said, “Either lead, follow or get the out of the way,” but our state legislature has neither led nor followed. It’s now time for them to get out of the way and allow the voters to do the job our legislators have failed to do: to provide a permanent, stable, dedicated source of funding to sustain our state parks system.
T. Keith Gurnee is a resident of San Luis Obispo, a principal of RRM Design Group and a former San Luis Obispo City Council member who currently serves as a member of the Legislative Committee for the California Parks and Recreation Society.