Friday, July 17, 2009

STAYING ALIVE - Update on CA Budget Battle and OHV/State Parks

As Ruth Coleman, Director of California State Parks, gave her views yesterday on the current status of the CA budget mess to the OHMVR Commission, I was reminded of the title of the famous disco song – Staying Alive.
Photo at right: State Park Director - Ruth Coleman (2nd from Left)

Yesterday, on behalf of the BlueRibbon Coalition, The General attended an OHMVR Commission meeting in Sacramento. The high or low point (depends on how you look at it) of the meeting was Coleman’s rather grim presentation on the potential closure of many regular state parks units and/or the gutting of her department.

She pointed out those park units which are funded through special funds (SVRAs and lakes and reservoirs), and receive no general fund dollars, appear to be safe from closing. This is because these parks are funded by the people who use them under the user pay/user benefit model. OHMVR and Boating and Waterways are two such examples.

On the other hand, she believes many non-special fund state park units could still be subject to closure if lawmakers cannot find a way to resolve the 26 billion dollar shortfall. Coleman’s Deputy for Administration told the group they had looked at raising park fees but they would have to TRIPLE entrance and camping fees to come up with the 72 million dollars they need to stay in business. However, this scenario won’t help because if fees were raised by that amount you would drive folks away from the parks (and hence decrease any potential fiscal benefit from the increase in fees) and it would functionally exclude lower income families from enjoying those facilities.

Since state park employees are not allowed to lobby for their programs, Coleman and staff kept their presentation very matter-of-fact and did not tell the OHV commission/community what to do. It is my impression reading between the lines that the operations side of the OHV Program is safe from being raided. However, the grants portion of the program (i.e. grants to FS, BLM, counties, law enforcement, etc) could still be vulnerable in future budget cycles. At this time, I think the legislature maybe hesitant to steal dedicated funds from user-pay/user-benefit programs because it sends a horrible message to the public and would kill future support for any such endeavors.

At the end of the day, I can’t tell you when this budget mess will be fixed. It could be this weekend or in 3-4 weeks. It is my impression that regular state parks must become entirely self-funded. One such option that appears to be on the table is a $15 dollar/yr. surcharge (some would call it a use-fee or tax) that would be charged on every vehicle when the owner renews their registration. An alternative could be either an Op-Out (where you have to decline to pay the fee at time of paying your renewal) or an Opt-In (where you have to accept the additional fee at time of registration). Another option could be for state parks to continue efforts to gain corporate sponsorships for some or all of the units. Also, the National Park Service could take over management of several joint state/fed units such as Redwood National and State Parks in Northern California (not a good option for recreationists and access in my opinion since the NPS has a preservationist agenda vs. the more recreation/people friendly approach).

I think riders need to continue to monitor this process and send in letters of concern to your legislators as the spirit or OHV alerts move you.
The CA budget saga continues...
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