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Prop 21 Seeks to Aid State Parks in Peril

But is taxing motor vehicles the right solution to an obvious problem?

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Despite their differences, both sides of the Proposition 21 debate agree on a few key points: California's parks are state treasures; they're in generally poor shape due to persistent underfunding; and something needs to be done, soon. That's a fair amount of common ground, but the similarities end there. Proposition 21's idea is simple: solve the budget shortfall by taxing each vehicle in the state an additional $18, forking the proceeds over to the parks and granting all Californians free access. Thanks largely to a distaste for ballot-box budgeting, however, opponents don't feel the ends justify the means. Yet a vote either way carries even more baggage the two campaigns are willing to admit.

To Prop 21 co-author and California State Parks Foundation president Elizabeth Goldstein, it's been evident for years that California's state parks might be in need of rescue. From a maintenance point of view, she said, the parks department has been underfunded for nearly three decades — at rates as low as 40 to 50 percent of its need. A few years ago, the department began keeping a maintenance waiting list, and to date has accumulated $1.3 billion in deferred projects, said Goldstein, who now serves as the Yes on 21 campaign treasurer.

But it wasn't until Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to close 48 parks in January 2008 that the public started paying attention. "That was a trumpet call across the entire field," Goldstein said. "That initial proposal really shocked a lot of people." The proposal was withdrawn, but the following May, Schwarzenegger proposed cuts for 220 of the state's 278 parks. Ultimately, $14.2 million was trimmed from the department's budget, which led to the partial closure of approximately sixty parks and service cuts to another ninety.

The East Bay's most prominent state park, Mount Diablo, has seen significant cuts, said Ron Brown, executive director of Save Mount Diablo and board member of the Contra Costa Council, both of whom have endorsed Prop 21. Visitor kiosks at the park's two main entrances have been abandoned, and the museum atop the mountain is now staffed by volunteers. Campgrounds and restrooms have been closed, work has been left unfinished, and Save Mount Diablo has begun to donate equipment and supplies to the state park, including $500 in steel piping for water lines at a restroom facility, and an ATV for patrol access.

"This is not the ideal way of funding our state parks," Brown said of Prop 21. "But this is the methodology that seems to make the most sense. ... The citizens of this state have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to preserve these state treasures, and the state government has been unable to maintain them."

Goldstein and her foundation started gathering signatures in January, and had 760,000 names by spring. Prop 21's plan to tax every vehicle in California (except those above 10,000 pounds) an additional $18 would generate $500 million a year. But not all of that would be headed to state parks: Additional funds have been earmarked for marine preserves, state conservancies, river parkways, and wildlife conservation throughout the state. Existing state funding of $133 million would be returned to the general fund, and since Californians would now be granted free access to parks, the parks department would forfeit another $50 million or so in revenues. Still, Goldstein estimated that the net funding headed to parks would wipe clean the deferred maintenance list and, with more cars going on the road every year, sustain the department for at least twenty years.

Wendy Nelson of the No on 21 campaign says she'd love to see the parks restored and fully funded. "If the maintenance backlog is truly as bad as the yes folks are saying, we should be furious with the legislature for letting this happen," she said. However, she believes that passing a proposition to obtain funding through a car tax sets a dangerous precedent.

"Funding should be coming from a place that's a direct benefit, like a user fee," Nelson said. "When you fund something with a vehicle license fee, you're going to get into an issue of 'Why don't we fund libraries and why don't we fund community colleges?' So we're really opening up the floodgates if we allow this type of funding mechanism to go in."

Another problem with dedicating a funding source to a specific department, Nelson said, is that it further restricts the legislature's ability to move money around during the budget-writing process. "It's just bad public policy," she said. "You're basically tying their hands, and they can't adjust based on the needs of the state."

There's no denying that Prop 21 gives special treatment to state parks, and may lead down a road some Californians are unwilling to travel. As a result, the question facing voters becomes more complex: Are parks and related properties such as museums and historical buildings valuable enough to be set up as an exception? And is it wise to rewire their funding mechanism so completely? Supporters insist parks are worth the effort, and that the money grab would be mitigated by the return of $133 million to the general fund. Yet opponents' principle-based, fiscally conservative rejection of the proposition certainly has teeth — especially in the age of the Tea Party.

But if voters reject Prop 21, are they cutting off their nose to spite their face? What happens if state parks continue underfunded for another three, five, or ten years? It's likely a bleak picture. "If funding doesn't get secured for the state parks system, parks will be closed down and made inaccessible to the public," said Goldstein. Even temporary closures are serious business; there's often a huge hurdle to reopening a park, including repairing deteriorated structures, cleaning vandalism, and clearing out the marijuana-growing operations that are all but sure to move into unsupervised parkland. The price tag of reopening parks and properties would only increase the burden on our state's budget. Without a timely solution, Goldstein said, "There's no reason to believe that things are going to get better. They're only going to get worse."

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