Politics & Government

User fees likely to replace taxes

State policymakers have been planning on shifting to a "user pays" proposal making it cost more to hunt, fish, camp and develop land or water crops.
State policymakers have been planning on shifting to a "user pays" proposal making it cost more to hunt, fish, camp and develop land or water crops. The Olympian

There are no new taxes in the budget Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed this week, but that doesn't mean Washingtonians won't pay more for state services.

For months, anticipating deep cuts, state policymakers have been laying the groundwork for a shift to a “user pays” philosophy for the management of state lands and waters.

A host of proposed fees being readied for consideration by the Legislature would make it more expensive to hunt, fish, camp, kayak and develop land or water crops. Parks and other state lands that are now free to all would start charging visitors.

“If you want to use the state parks, you’re going to have to pay for them,” Gregoire said this week as she unveiled her plan for closing a $4.6 billion budget gap in the next state budgetary biennium.

The proposal calls for phasing out spending on the state’s 119 parks, effectively weaning them off the state’s main fund completely by 2012.

The state Parks and Recreation Commission put forward a plan for how to make up the cut that leans heavily on a fee charged to drivers when they register their cars.

Since 2009, drivers have donated $5 to the parks when they renewed their car tabs, unless they specifically opted out. The parks board suggests replacing it with a $10 fee that would be an annual parking pass, not a donation.

Drivers could still opt out, but if they parked at a state park that year, they would have to pay $5 at the gate every time. Parking passes were tried a few years ago, but the experiment was short-lived.

Nearly four in 10 drivers donate $5 now, according to the parks department. If participation increased to 50 percent with the parking pass system, the agency figures it could raise $60 million every two years.

The board also proposed other ways to raise money, including ending or scaling back its discount camping fees for senior citizens, foster families and people with disabilities.

The parks board worries that charging for entrance will block access to the poor. But “there are programs where the poor are even harder hit, whether it’s health care or protecting the vulnerable,” said board Chairman Fred Olson, “and that’s where (Gregoire) wants to, I think rightfully, place those general fund dollars.”

The parks system still could fall short of the money needed, Olson said, requiring parks to be mothballed. State parks threatened with closure in the past have included Kopachuck and Joemma Beach in Pierce County and Tolmie in Thurston County.

Jim King Jr., coordinator of advocacy group Citizens for Parks and Recreation, said parks supporters are willing to see the state cut funding if a package of new revenue is large enough to make up for it.

MORE TO HUNT, FISH

Campers, kayakers, hikers and other visitors also soon could pay for access to the 6.5 million acres managed by the departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife.

One possibility is an annual per-person entrance fee being referred to as an “Explore Washington Pass” that could raise up to $6 million a year.

“We’re talking somewhere around $45 at least as a starting point, for those individuals above 19 years of age,” said Joe Stohr, deputy director of Fish and Wildlife.

Hunters and fishermen would pay much less, closer to $7, Stohr said. But the cost for many fishing and hunting licenses would go up as well.

Fish and Wildlife has proposed a long list of new license fees. Some for the most popular fish and game, such as trout and deer, would stay roughly the same and licenses would even drop for youths and other special groups. But those for big trophies such as elk, bear and cougar would rise dramatically.

Fish and Wildlife could raise as much as $18 million from the hunting licenses and another proposal to start charging for thousands of permits it awards to timber companies, local governments and others that work around water where endangered fish swim.

“If these don’t pass, it’s going to be pretty catastrophic,” Stohr said.

MORE FOR WATER

Gregoire’s budget also calls for making applicants for water rights foot the full cost of processing their application.

The average application costs $10,000 to process, Department of Ecology spokesman Dan Partridge said. Every two years the program costs $10.2 million to run, he said.

Taxpayers cover all but $150,000 of that cost now. The budget proposal calls for farms, factories, land developers and other water users to take over the full cost through application fees.

Farmers and other opponents have stopped those kinds of proposals in their tracks in the past. John Stuhlmiller, lobbyist for the Washington Farm Bureau, said farmers would want a shorter application process as a trade-off for higher fees. Getting a permit can take years, he said.

TAXES DOUBTFUL

Restrictions on taxes by voters leave budget writers likely to lean on fees.

Voters in November repealed taxes on soft drinks and candy, rejected an income tax on high-earners and put in a barrier to new taxes, requiring the Legislature to muster two-thirds majorities for tax hikes – or ask voters to approve them.

Faced with devastating budget cuts, some lawmakers aren’t ruling out the possibility of coming up with tax revenue that would have to go to a public vote. The deep cuts might change minds, said Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma.

“We may be able to now impress upon the voters the fact that we weren’t kidding; this is a major crisis in our state,” she said.

But Gregoire said the voters have already made themselves clear. Asked if she would back a ballot measure with taxes, she said: “No, that’s not me. I heard the voters.”

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