They must keep parks open. Otherwise, the death spiral begins.
Revenue to operate Washington’s gloriously beautiful state parks system depends in large part, and soon almost entirely, on the people willing to pay to use them. If there are fewer parks to visit, fewer will pay. If fewer pay, you must close more parks. Close more parks, and fewer pay. If fewer pay, close more parks …
Down you go, until there’s nothing left to close.
The death spiral has not yet begun, but the budgetary fingernails by which the parks are hanging grow weak. This week the state parks told a third of their full-time staff of more than 500 that their jobs are “at risk” and may be or will be eliminated. That includes regional directors and park rangers across North Central Washington, according to the report from The World’s K.C. Mehaffey. The staff cuts are part of an $11 million slashing, necessary because too few of us are willing to pay $30 for the new Discover Pass. Sales of the new pass are far below projections. They had expected $64 million in revenue in two years, divided among the beneficiary agencies — Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife and parks, with most going to parks. At the current pace, they will take in $24 million less than that. Since July, Discover Pass sales brought in just $7.2 million. Apparently, we are not fond of the idea.
You can’t pay park employee salaries with nothing in the budget. It is difficult to keep parks open, and impossible to maintain them properly, without employees, but they must lay off employees or close parks. To say this is a bad situation is below understatement.
Maybe reality will hit home, before it is too late. Those of us who use state parks and expect them to be open and in reasonably good condition, have to realize we must pay for the privilege. And it is a privilege. There are no constitutional rights to mowed lawns and clean restrooms. The legislators trying to pay for more than they can afford have no basket of parks money they are holding back for their pet programs. If parks are to survive through this recession in the condition we have come to admire, respect and enjoy, we have to pay to get in. Right now, there’s no other way.
The daily operations of state parks once were funded mostly by appropriations from the state’s general fund. That’s one of the big budgets the Legislature hacks out every two years. But, funding for schools, health care, public assistance, public safety and all the other things we expect of government come from the same pot. Demand rises — and for things like health care and education, there is no choice but pay. At the same time revenue from taxes is falling. The appropriations for the optional luxuries, like state parks, have to go. The state parks that recently received three-quarters of their operating budget from the general fund, now get a mere 12 percent from that source. The next budget, say legislators, it’s zero.
Nothing. No tax revenue for day-to-day operations. Nearly all of it has to come from users.
Something must be done to make the Discover Pass more popular and useful. Currently, the pass is good for one vehicle, and cannot be transferred. This is seen as a major pain by typical parks users, who might take their truck on camping trips and their minivan to go swimming at Lincoln Rock. People who think parks are worth a $30 permit don’t think they are worth $60, or $90. Rep. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, has introduced a bill that would make the pass good for two vehicles instead of just one. That seems a reasonable marketing decision, and the bill should be passed soon.
Otherwise, beware the death spiral.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursday and Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.