Washington’s pay-to-play system for its state recreation lands is working, officials say.
“I think you’ll be happy to hear me say unequivocally, the Discover Pass is a success,” state parks commissioner Mark Brown testified to state lawmakers.
But Republican budget writers don’t see a future in charging visitors the $30-a-year parking fee.
“It’s had varying degrees of success, but significant voter response that this is really a hassle,” Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill said Wednesday, “especially when you have 27 different types of licenses and passes and Sno-Park permits, and hunting licenses, fishing licenses...”
Hill, R-Redmond, and others in the Senate majority have thrown their support behind a proposal to all but abolish the Discover Pass — making it voluntary — and find alternative ways to pay for parks.
There’s one catch, Hill said: The replacement for the pass, which has been bringing in more than 30 percent of state parks funding, needs to be found “within existing resources.” That is, without raising new revenue.
The Senate proposal as it exists now, however, relies on extending an expiring fee. It makes permanent a $10 fee on the recording of real-estate documents. That money now pays for housing for the homeless, but under this plan would go to recreation agencies.
The proposal could be a tall order in the Democratic House. House Speaker Frank Chopp has been a champion of housing programs. Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, said the state isn’t far enough out of the Great Recession to talk about abandoning the Discover Pass, and said any fee that would be grabbed to replace it has its supporters.
The senators’ funding plan would also divert money from a state account that has been used lately to pay to operate the state library, but that was originally intended as a way to sock money away for a future new library and archives building.
That’s stepping on the turf of Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, whose spokesman says senators didn’t consult her office before proposing to grab the money. Wyman and her predecessor, Sam Reed, have played defense for years to keep the prospect alive for a Heritage Center.
The center would address the state’s shortage of room for archival documents while also providing a home for the library and a welcome to Capitol Campus visitors. Its account is stocked by fees on incorporations and on recorded documents such as real estate transactions.
“There’s supposed to be a logical connection” between a fee and what it funds, Wyman spokesman David Ammons said. “Parks, while they’re a worthy public purpose, don’t fit that test in our mind.”
The lead lawmaker proposing the change, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said the connection is no less tenuous than those made in the past, and access to parks is important enough to justify it.
“The idea of charging for day access or to drive through a state park is not very popular with the citizens of Washington — and I don’t think it should be,” Braun said. “It’s their state park, and they ought to be able to use it without charge.”
Braun wouldn’t eliminate the Discover Pass altogether, keeping it as a voluntary donation to avoid undoing all of the parks system’s work creating an infrastructure for the pass.
The pass was supposed to raise $54 million for state parks in its first two years, but ended up bringing in just half of that. Halfway through a third year, revenue is beating new, lowered expectations but remains close to first-year levels.
Brown said most states have a parks pass program, and the Discover Pass is the fifth most productive in the nation, showing that Washingtonians are willing to pay.
“I think we’ve ridden out the storm, so to speak, with the Discover Pass,” he said.
The original idea of the pass was to wean state parks completely off of state taxpayers. But with the shortfalls, parks have needed continued subsidies from the state’s general fund. Parks commissioners have concluded that they can’t fund their agency entirely on user fees.
That would continue even under Braun’s plan, the senator said. And parks would actually need a bit more in bridge funding until the new fees kicked in.
Braun’s proposed legislation, Senate Bill 6293, would also find money for park repairs and renovations by changing state grants that are now used partly for acquisition of new land parcels.
And it calls for parks to seek bids from companies that might be able to more efficiently manage “state camping areas and their related facilities.” That implies a larger private role in parks, but Braun said his intent is only to open the already privately run camping reservation system to more competition.