Politics & Government

Plan puts state parks at mercy of donors

UPDATE: The opt-out plan, House Bill 2339, passed the House in a contentious debate Monday night. The vote was 56-42, with all but one Republican and several Democrats voting against the measure. ~~~A simple switch on residents’ car license renewals appears set to bring monumental change for Washington’s 121 state parks.

Parks are staffed and kept up mostly with tax dollars today, but legislators grappling with a recession appear set on a new strategy that would raise a majority of the parks budget from donations and income such as camping fees.

“We’re going to have to go out — not just the agency, but park supporters — are going to have to go out and encourage people to pay. Pay your five dollars and you keep your parks open,” said Jim King of Citizens for Parks and Recreation.

The key to the State Parks and Recreation Commission’s future is that $5. Drivers are invited make the donation when they renew their car tabs now, and lawmakers want to switch to an opt-out collection.

In that plan, the $5 would be added to the total bill for renewal. If you don’t want to pay, you don’t have to — but you have to say so.

Going from opt-in to opt-out forms is expected to increase donations from $50,000 a month to more than $1 million a month.

If it works, it’s enough money to stave off a cut of $23 million that threatened to close more than 40 parks, including South Sound locales such as Millersylvania, Kopachuck, Lake Sylvia and Joemma Beach.

The consequences of the donations falling short are serious. Majority Democrats plan to make nearly $4 billion in cuts to all state services, and they are counting on the donations to make up for deep cuts to the parks budget.

Rex Derr, executive director of the agency, supports the opt-out model but has advised lawmakers it will be a dramatic change.

“We are very nervous about going from a budget that is right now about 30 percent supported by revenues that we’re responsible for generating, to 50 percent to 60 percent of our budget supported by both revenues and now a new donation source. And we’re going to pay very close attention to it,” he said last week.

‘Our best budget ever’

State parks have seen plenty of highs and lows during the past decade. In 1999, the agency estimated it had $40 million in overdue repairs and maintenance projects. In 2003, a smaller recession prompted the agency to turn over five parks to the Army Corps of Engineers. That year, it also began charging a day-use fee for what once was free public picnic and play space.

Annual park visits dropped by 2 million in two years to 39.2 million in 2005, although the fees probably weren’t the only factor, and they helped offset budget cuts.

Things turned around, particularly after Gov. Chris Gregoire took office in 2005. Park rangers and the agency’s approximately 750 employees saw $10 million in new raises under the first-ever union contracts for pay. In 2006, the Legislature ended the day-use fees and gave the agency enough money to make up for their loss — about $8 million over two years.

The current two-year budget included money to open the popular Cama Beach park, $3.5 million in added maintenance funding, and $2 million to move from 1960s modular buildings to a brand-new, lease-to-own headquarters in Tumwater. It also started the opt-in donation program in January 2008.

“That was our best budget ever,” said parks finance director Ilene Frisch. She noted that it caught up on many areas that had been underfunded, and the maintenance backlog has dropped to $20 million — half its previous amount.

But tax income began to drop as a national recession set in. All state agencies stopped hiring in the summer, and by December, Gregoire unveiled a budget proposal that included closing or transferring ownership of 13 parks.

Tax collections continued to plummet as lawmakers convened in Olympia early this year, and the parks commission added dozens more parks to the potential closure list.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, who sponsored the opt-in donation program, offered the opt-out idea.

Both the House and Senate Democratic majorities proposed budgets that used opt-out, and they assumed that half of all registrations would include donations, raising $28 million over two years.

Concerns over opt-out

If enough people donate, state parks could have a stable stream of money to keep all sites open in a time when many families are looking for low-cost travel options.

“Everyone’s got to take a hit. I certainly understood when the governor had to cut our budget,” said Fred Olson, a member of the parks commission from Olympia.

“I’m pleased the Legislature been able to look at some revenue. Those earlier, draconian cuts would have been terrible,” he said. “We’ve seen this outpouring by communities around the state, and they’ve told us how much these parks mean to them.”

Olson said he supports the opt-out plan and is optimistic that it will provide enough money to keep the parks system up and running.

King, of Citizens for Parks and Recreation, was less confident. His group paid for a poll that showed a car license donation program was less popular than more predictable sources of money, such as the day-use fees or a tax on recreational vehicles.

The tax on recreational vehicles could bring in $40 million over two years, King said.

“I’m torn between wanting to scream really loud versus understanding that (legislators) are trying,” he said.

A new tax would require approval by the voters under an initiative passed in 2007. Democrats think that because the donation program already exists, switching to an opt-out system will not trigger the required public vote.

“When I hear it’s not a fee, it’s not a tax, it’s voluntary, I just roll my eyes. You’re tricking people into paying it, basically,” said Tim Eyman, who sponsored the initiative requiring a vote.

Republicans, in the minority in the Legislature, have similar criticisms.

But the Legislature is scheduled to pass a budget and leave town within days. The opt-out plan appears to be the preferred solution.

“The opt-out is something Montana has done for years, and I just want to make sure we keep our parks open, especially now, in this economy,” Kessler said last week.

A risky year

The Department of Licensing warned last week that they could not start the opt-out program by July 1, as legislators assumed. Programming online renewal forms and making other changes would take until September, and actual collections would not start until December, said Glenn Ball, the licensing department’s administrator for title and registration services.

The delay means a loss of $5 million to $6.5 million in expected funds, said Frisch, parks budget director.

And the House budget proposal cuts more money than the opt-out program is expected to bring in. State parks received $94.5 million in this budget year, but the Senate proposes to give it $72 million next year, and the House has offered just $60.1 million.

If lawmakers don’t add funds to cover the delay, a requirement in the House budget that no parks close is unreachable, Frisch said.

“Bottom line is, if there is not enough time for July revenues, there’s not enough in the budget to keep all parks open,” Frisch said.

Gas prices and weather can change how much the agency will bring in through camping fees, concessions and other collections, she noted.

The opt-out fee introduces more risk. While Montana’s opt-out system has nearly 90 percent participation, there is no sure way to know how Washington’s different opt-out program will fare.

For parks supporters, the coming year could be a telling moment for an agency often rattled by recessions.

“We’ve just gotten them fixed; let’s not let them slip again,” King said. “Let’s not let people tear the toilets out again because there’s no ranger around — I think that’s were people are right now.”