Endorsements 2010: Yes on 21; parks need a stable source of funds

Thursday, Sep. 16, 2010

California’s 278 state parks are undisputed treasures. Anyone who has soaked in the pools of Grover Hot Springs State Park or camped on the beach of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park or seen the spring wildflowers at Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park can testify to the splendor of these public lands.

On Nov. 2, California voters must be prepared to answer two questions in regard to their state parks:

• Is the state providing adequate support for its state parks system?

• If not, does Proposition 21 offer a reasonable and fair funding method for maintaining and improving these parks?

Clearly, the answer to the first question is no. As The Bee and other McClatchy newspapers reported this year, California’s state parks are bogged down by a $1.3 billion maintenance backlog, a legacy of decades of neglect by the Legislature. This legacy has led to contaminated drinking water at certain parks; trails so eroded they are dangerous to visitors; deferred repairs at historic properties such as Hearst Castle and Angel Island; and reduced ranger patrols at all parks, leading to crime and safety concerns.

Even worse is the prospect that, during the current fiscal crisis or future ones, the state may be forced to close down state parks, as the governor proposed to do at 100 of them last year.

State parks, like our local parks, are an inheritance. That puts them in a special category. These are properties and habitats donated or transferred to the state for safekeeping. That means we have an obligation to keep them in good condition and ensure that they remain accessible for future generations.

Proposition 21 proposes to meet this obligation by creating a secure trust fund for state parks maintenance and development. If passed, the initiative would assess an $18 annual surcharge on vehicle licenses. In exchange, state motorists would get free day-use access to all parks.

Overall, this surcharge would raise $500 million annually while relieving the general fund of roughly $140 million that now goes to state parks each year. Although the state parks system would see a decline in revenue from entrance fees, the net effect would be a $250 million annual boost in funding for parks and wildlife conservation, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Proposition 21 is an imperfect answer to a serious problem. Ideally, the state would correct its roller coaster budget troubles so parks had stable funding. That’s why this editorial board has generally – although not always – opposed initiatives that carve out pots of state money for specific causes.

Yet those principles must be balanced with the serious threat facing the state parks system and the likelihood that many of these parks could be closed or further degraded if Proposition 21 fails.

Moreover, voters need to consider the manner in which this initiative came to the ballot.

During previous legislative sessions, supporters of Proposition 21 urged lawmakers to approve a version of their measure or take other steps to help state parks. Those efforts got nowhere amid the partisan paralysis of the Legislature.

It would be also be unfair to depict Proposition 21 as a cynical money grab, as some opponents are attempting to do. Unlike some past examples of “ballot-box budgeting,” Proposition 21 doesn’t attempt to use bonds or borrowing for a specific cause. Interest costs on such measures rob money from the general fund. By contrast, Proposition 21 creates its own funding source. By so doing, it relieves the state’s general fund of an obligation.

Another argument against Proposition 21 is one of equity. Business groups that oppose the measure say the $18 annual fee is regressive and will result in “single mothers subsidizing a parks system” they rarely use.

This is a disingenuous argument. What is truly inequitable is the disparity of parkland across California, particularly in the Central Valley, which has some of the state’s largest concentrations of poverty.

Proposition 21 would raise funds to ensure that all people in California, regardless of where they live, have access to parks. Moreover, it would give them free day-use access to parks, saving families $10 to $15 per carload.

Opponents of Proposition 21 – mainly auto manufacturers and anti-tax groups – acknowledge the threat to state parks but offer no alternatives. This is truly shortsighted.

California’s state parks attract millions of tourists each year, and those visitors help the bottom line of nearby motels, restaurants and other businesses. Every dollar invested in parks flows back to us in healthier lifestyles, business retention, sales tax revenues and a cleaner environment. On Nov. 2, consider a “yes” vote for Proposition 21.

originally published at: http://www.sacbee.com/2010/09/16/3033002/yes-on-21-parks-need-a-stable.html

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