Faced with a $4.6 billion budget gap, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed moving the state in direction of "user pays," where those who use government services and programs pay for that privilege.
It’s a sound concept.
The one proposal that has drawn the most attention is the governor’s plan to move state parks off the state’s general fund and move them – and other state lands – under the user-pays philosophy.
Lawmakers have embraced the notion and are proposing a $30 annual access fee for state lands – including state parks.
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These desperate financial times require desperate measures and an annual parks pass makes sense. It’s no different than paying the $15, 7-day pass to get into Mount Rainier National Park or the $30 annual pass for Olympic National Park. Users of the parks should pay for their maintenance and operation.
This state has a marvelous parks system. But the continued operation of the parks is constantly at risk because of budget cuts. Over the years we’ve lost track of how many House and Senate budgets have included park closures as part of their solutions to budget gaps. Parks are an easy, first target.
Some parks have closed. But the state’s Parks and Recreation Commission together with lawmakers have generally found ways to keep the gates open at most facilities.
Now, however, lawmakers have their backs against the wall. That’s why they were quick to support the notion of an annual parks and public lands pass supported by fees.
That irked former House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, a Democrat from Hoquiam, who recently groused at a legislative hearing, “I’ve never seen everyone roll over for the governor so quickly. I’m surprised they’re not fighting back a little bit.”
The proposal under consideration is to create a $30 annual fee for a “Discover Pass” that would allow unlimited access to state parks and public lands. People who visit a park without a pass would pay $10 for a single day pass. Violators would face a citation.
Advocates of the user fee say the alternative is – no surprise here – to put parks and public lands off limits to the public.
“The reality is, we’re talking about laying off teachers, getting rid of senior-citizens programs,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee. “That’s the competition for parks. If it’s seniors and kids versus the environment, who do you think wins?”
Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, and officials at the Department of Fish and Wildlife have suggested a per-person “Explore Washington Pass,” perhaps $45, to camp and hike on the 6.5 million acres they manage.
Ranker has said he wants a single pass for parks and public lands.
According to budget estimates, the agencies would need the passes to raise at least $71 million, including $60 million for the parks to make up for Gregoire’s proposal to cut them off the state’s general fund.
Let’s be honest. Imposing a fee comes at a risk of not generating sufficient funds for park operations and also of putting parks beyond the reach of low-income families.
Opponents to the annual access fee note that when the state imposed a $5 park fee several years ago, it generated only $3 million. Attendance at state parks dropped 18 percent and lawmakers abandoned the fee after three years. Legislators recently moved to a fee added to vehicle licenses to offset some of the costs to run state parks.
Opponents of an annual pass say some research suggests the poor were deterred from going to state parks by the cost.
But Ranker is right when he says it’s still a cheap alternative to a lot of family outings. Has anyone priced the cost for a family to attend a Seahawks or Mariners game with food and parking thrown in? Professional sports are quickly pricing themselves out of the reach of middle-class families who could visit all 119 parks and more than 6 million acres of other state land for a fee of perhaps $30 a year.
The fact of the matter is, Washington state is not plowing new ground here. Forty-one states charge for park entry and in the case of neighboring Oregon, they have done it for decades. People are willing to pay because they know parks don’t receive any of their taxes, Oregon parks spokesman Chris Havel said.
Gregoire’s recommendation is a reasonable response to the budget crisis facing this state because it ensures continued public access to parks and public lands and forces those who use those state resources to pay for their maintenance and operation.