Newspaper Says 'No' to State Park Funding Solution
Editor's Note: The San Francisco Chronicle published this editorial in opposition to Proposition 21, a proposal to help fund California state parks.
With Proposition 21, California is taking the wrong path for a good cause. The measure carves out a hands-off budget for state parks, which badly need financial support. But this piecemeal approach to budgeting via the ballot box is not the way to set priorities in a state with myriad pressing needs, especially in these lean years.
The origins of this measure are understandable. For years, the parks budget faced cuts and there's an estimated $1 billion in deferred work on campgrounds, bridges and trails. Last year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to close more than 200 parks out of a total of 278 before relenting. Parks boosters, weary from these battles, collected signatures for a plan they believe will end the drama.
Prop. 21 would impose an $18 charge on vehicle registration, excluding commercial vehicles, trailers and mobile homes. An estimated $500 million would go into a lock-box kitty and could only be spent on parks and wildlife conservation. Day fees would be dropped, a feature that could lure more residents to beaches, mountains and lakes. In a state with a treasured outdoors, the idea carries appeal.
But the approach is short-sighted. State finances are already dotted with similar walled-off financial pots, making budget-writing difficult. If this measure wins, other long-suffering groups might step forward with heart-tugging arguments for social services, law enforcement or health care.
Voters may be fed up with Sacramento's financial paralysis — a notion that this measure caters to — but it robs Sacramento of the flexibility needed to set priorities and write a budget.
There are other problems. There is no clear connection between the tax source — vehicle fees — and the expense of running state parks. Backers say most park users arrive by car but the same could be said about nearly any activity in car-crazy California. Also, the day will surely come when the $18 fee isn't sufficient, requiring another ballot measure to increase it. The fee, small as it may sound, hits low-income drivers harder than others.
California's parks require a steady flow of tax revenue to remain healthy. But parks aren't entitled to the special treatment that this measure provides. Vote "No" on Prop. 21.