Our Voice: Legislature's failing plan for funding Washington's parks needs fixing

December 6, 2013 

crow butte panorama

Crow Butte Park, a 275-acre facility on a 1,500-acre island on the Columbia River, includes camping and day use areas and a boat launch. The Port of Benton took control of the former state park in 2007.

FILE — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

We've never said that balancing our state's precarious budget is an easy task. But we sure wish our lawmakers made decisions with more forethought than they have on past occasions.

We'd like them to look at the long-term consequences, not just the immediate cost savings, when they're looking to trim expenses.

Two prime examples of short-sighted decision-making were the choices to eliminate the budget for state tourism marketing and slashing funding for our state parks system.

Tourism brings visitors who bring cash to our state. We need that. But we can't compete with states that understand the positive financial impact tourists bring and fund marketing efforts accordingly. We've expounded on that topic in a recent editorial.

Today, the topic is parks. A recent report by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission showed the plan to force the parks system to become self-sufficient is not working.

The Legislature started cutting money for parks in 2009, which resulted in layoffs, park closures and discontinued programs. At the same time, lawmakers created the Discover Pass, which was supposed to generate revenue to cover the costs of operating the parks. The $30 annual pass required to access state parks has not met sales projections. To keep the parks open, millions of dollars of litter tax receipts have been spent.

"To put it succinctly, state parks is in an unsustainable financial situation," the report states. "While the agency has been able to effect a modest increase in revenues (from user fees), these simply are not sufficient to cover the costs of running the park system."

To show just how drastic the cuts were to the parks budget, ponder this: The 2007-09 budget had $94.5 million in general support for parks. The current operating budget provides $8.3 million in general support, plus $11.7 million in taxes on products that contribute the most to the state's litter problem. That's it. The parks department is expected to generate the balance of the $113.1 million it needs to operate during that time.

That's a tall order. And a burden beyond what park users should have to bear. Having great open spaces for public access around our state benefits us all and helps make Washington such an amazing state. We agree with the report's finding that the support should come from a more balanced mix of user fees and general taxpayer support.

We don't want parks to become something only those with means can afford to visit. If you don't buy the annual Discover Pass, a day trip is $10 per visit. That can add up in a hurry for families with already tight budgets. And we certainly would rather families spend time together in the wide open beauty of our state than holed up around TVs and computer screens.

The chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee said the parks department needs to be given more tools to raise money before the state stops funding it altogether. That might be a good step, but we still think our parks deserve some general taxpayer support for the long-term.

It's good for residents of our state. And while our lawmakers find some money to pay for our parks, they need to put some money in the pot for tourism marketing as well. The two matters go together quite nicely.

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