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Save the Parks?

Patrick Dorinson
Host of The Cowboy Libertarian Radio Talk Show in Sacramento

Every year for what seems like forever, when the Legislature tackles the budget our legislators wake up and say, "How did I get into this hole and what is my favorite shovel doing here?"

Well, your shovel is there Mr. and Ms. Legislator because you are the ones who dug the hole. So as a first step, how about stop digging.

California’s decaying and crumbling state parks and the circumstances that have brought them to this point offer a textbook example of why California chronically finds itself in this self-created budget hole year in and year out.

Recently the Sacramento Bee ran a lengthy investigation into the state of California’s parks and what they found should anger every Californian who enjoys and appreciates the beauty and historic value of our state parks and pays the taxes and fees to keep them that way.

Some of the key findings of their reporting are extremely troubling.

California’s state parks have a maintenance backlog of $1.3 billion. That number has more than doubled since 2001 when the estimate was a mere $600 million.

For more than a decade maintenance has for the most part been ignored. Places like Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento and park at nearby Coloma where gold was discovered in 1848 sparking the Gold Rush and the birth of the state of California are both falling apart.

State parks are funded by a combination of money from the General Fund and from user fees. In the current fiscal year that number is $330 million. In 2001 it was $314 million and as the Bee correctly states that is a 15% drop when adjusted for inflation.

Finally from 2001 until today California voters through bond measures have added 12 new parks and 100,000 acres that need to be cared for but there never was added any additional funding to do so.

Typical California ballot initiative. Pass a feel good initiative to create more parks and then worry later on how to have money to pay for their maintenance. We call this the Scarlett O’Hara School of Governance which is based on her famous words at the end of the 1939 classic "Gone with the Wind" when she states, "I will worry about that tomorrow because tomorrow is another day!"

Enter Proposition 21 on this year’s ballot.(FULL DISCLOSURE: I am working for the No on Prop 21 campaign)

Prop 21 would raise the Vehicle License Fee (VLF) an additional $18 on every car in the state. Commercial vehicles would be exempt.

The money would then be "dedicated" to the parks. The "fee" in the parlance of the Legislature and a "tax" to the rest of us would raise according to the proponents about $500 million.

Vehicles would then get free entry to all parks, but other fees for boat launching and camping would remain in place.

Now not all that money would go to parks. Only 85% would be used for parks. In order to gain the support of the so-called "environmental community", 15% would go to wildlife refuges, ecological reserves– whatever they are– marine wildlife conservation and wildlife conservation on state lands.

What a great initiative. Save the parks and save the planet all at once. More things to maintain with no idea what the cost will be over time.

The proponents also state that the money can’t be used for other purposes only parks.

They told us the same thing in 2002 when we were sold that other pig in a poke, Prop 42.

Prop 42 was going to fix our transportation infrastructure. It said in part, "Requires gasoline sales tax (we already pay at the pump) be used to improve road safety, mass transit and reduce traffic– WITHOUT RAISING TAXES.

But it also said that a 2/3 vote by the Legislature could suspend the payments and almost every year since it has been in effect the Legislature has done just that-robbed Peter to pay Paul.

And Peter is still driving on the crumbling roads.

No one in their right mind believes that the money from Prop 21 would not be used down the road by the Legislature for some other purpose-probably to service debt.

But back to Prop 21.

In 2010 we see this same underhanded budgetary legerdemain regularly practiced by the Legislature come into play.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s revised budget provides $140 million for parks from the General Fund to fully fund them for the next fiscal year.

Then on June 7th at a budget conference committee hearing the Democrats who run the Legislature wondered out loud what would happen to their little tax increase as embodied by Prop 21 if they fully funded the state parks as the Governor proposed.

In a remarkable and rare bit of honesty from the Legislature, Senator Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach said, "Part of the argument for voting for the park pass is that we didn’t fully fund the state parks.. That’s really why we are putting it on the ballot…And now that we are fully funding, they’re going to say, ‘Why do we need this park pass?’…It’s just going to be a very hard sell if we fully fund…"

Indeed Senator Lowenthal it will be a tough sell not because Californians are against parks. They know that the parks need to be restored and repaired for future generations but not by adding another tax burden on their already stressed pocketbooks.

It doesn’t take a genius to spot a goat in a flock of sheep.

And if you thought this was the only increase to the Vehicle License Fee that is coming, brace yourself.

In July 2011 the VLF was supposed to drop from 1.15% to .65%. Under the just released Democratic Budget Plan, they would INCREASE the VLF to 1.65%!

So let’s see. Add $18 to the VLF to pay for parks and then raise it again to pay for all the debt that the state has accumulated over the past decade.

Piling taxes and fees on vehicle ownership in California reminds me of the taxes on tobacco or liquor. In the past whenever the wizards in the Legislature needed some money to make up shortfalls or pay for pet projects they would tax tobacco or liquor.

The difference is that if you didn’t smoke or drink it didn’t affect you. But in a state as big as California a car is a virtual necessity. People need a vehicle to get to work, shop and enjoy those state parks that are in disrepair but still enjoyable.

If the parks are that important– and I believe they are– and are in need of funds to restore them to their former luster, I suggest that the Legislature do what every Californian has had to do during this recession-prioritize your budget and find something else to cut.

If you thought it was a tough sell in June Senator Lowenthal your sales job just got a lot tougher. Judging from your comments, I don’t think you’re that great a salesman.

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