Neb. Park Bailout Idea Labeled 'Extortion'
Sen. Bill Avery started debate Wednesday (April 17) in the Nebraska legislature on an idea to fund improvements for state parks with a disclaimer.
"This bill is not popular, and I know that," he said.
He was right. Debate did not produce a vote on the bill. Most senators agreed there was a need to fix the parks' problems; they just couldn't say how, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.
Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton led the opposition to the bill (LB362), which would add $7 to most vehicle registrations to pay for the parks' needs.
"I think this would be a great topic for an interim study for the Natural Resources Committee to conduct," Dubas said.
The bill was one idea for Nebraska residents to help pay the $43 million in needed improvements to the park system. It would generate about $12 million a year.
The proposal would replace the $25 yearly park fee with a $7 car registration fee that would allow any vehicle with Nebraska license plates to enter state parks or recreation areas without permits.
Non-Nebraska residents would continue to pay the $25 yearly fee or $5 daily fee.
In 2011, lawmakers raised annual permit fees to $25 from $20 and daily passes to $5 from $4, a measure that took an override of Gov. Dave Heineman's veto.
In 2012, Nebraska Game and Parks sold 242,000 daily permits, 140,000 annual permits and 66,000 duplicate annual permits for a total of $5.5 million. Charging about $3.50 per registration would raise about the same amount of money.
In addition to the parks' daily maintenance and operational needs, Avery said they have more than $30 million in backlogged maintenance that has pressed some of them to near closure. Ash Hollow State Park needs a new septic system and Calamus Reservoir State Recreation Area needs a new dock. There is also a $13 million need for improvements in accessibility for people with handicaps.
In the past two years, the state has turned over five state parks to counties for maintenance by such organizations as Rotary Clubs and Boy Scouts.
Permit revenue provides most of the funding for the state park system, which consists of eight parks, 11 historic parks such as Arbor Lodge in Nebraska City, 64 recreation areas and two recreational trails that see a total of more than 12 million visitors a year.
Dubas said some of the exemptions to the bill — including vehicles with handicap, veteran-related and historical plates and trucks — could be unconstitutional.
Nebraska ranks among the highest in the nation on car registration fees and taxes, with an average cost of $306 per vehicle, she said.
Dubas said the parks contribute in a major way to the state's economy and highlight its natural resources to people from out-of-state.
"But I just really struggle with the direction that we're going in trying to find a solution to this," she said.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers also opposed the bill.
"This is extortion," he said. "I do not want the Department of Motor Vehicles to become a cash register to hustle money for Game and Parks and compel people to put seven additional dollars down when they can barely pay the cost now that's required."
Avery said that before the bill comes back for debate, he would look for ways to reduce the $7 fee, and a funding mechanism to make up the difference.