Threats to most popular programs feel wrong

Yet, state leaders are doing just that as they seek public support for fee increases and tax hikes.

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Times are tight, particularly for government. We understand that.

But what we don't understand is why our elected leaders, starting with Gov. Chris Gregoire, propose cutting the most popular and necessary programs as a way to balance the state budget. Shouldn't the proposed cuts be in areas that are not well used or inefficient?

Yet, Gregoire's supplemental budget, which has a $2.6 billion hole, calls for the Department of Natural Resources to close more than 20 trails, campgrounds and interpretive centers in March. Among the proposed closures are the Mount Si and Little Si trailheads near North Bend, two of the state's most popular routes with an estimated combined use each year by more than 500,000 people, according to an Associated Press report.

Outdoor recreation groups are lobbying the Legislature to find the money -- $276,000 -- to keep the trails and recreation areas open.

"Losing public access to these areas for even a season would be a disaster," said Jonathan Guzzo, advocacy director for the Washington Trails Association. "These are important family outdoor getaways close to urban areas."

In the scope of the entire state budget, which is more than $30 billion over the two-year budget cycle, $276,000 is spare change. Still, saving $276,000 here and $100,000 there does add up to real money. Those dollars will eventually add up to billions.

That, however, isn't actually the intent of the proposed budget. It's obvious to us Gregoire and lawmakers are aiming to get the public riled so voters will support tax hikes and fee increases.

"Once the public sees this list of closures, they'll demand action from their legislators," said Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources, Oceans and Recreation Committee.

A bill is expected to be introduced in the House and the Senate this session that would give DNR the authority to charge fees for some sites and events, and would direct DNR, state Parks and Recreation and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to explore creating a single pass for access to lands managed by the three agencies.

Maybe this is a solid approach, maybe not. User fees are often a good way to pay for recreation programs such as these.

But what we find troubling is the manipulation being used to coerce the public into accepting these fee hikes. It feels as disingenuous as when a school board tells its community that the football team will be cut if a tax isn't increased. It's legislative extortion.

Cuts might have to be made to the DNR's budget if fees aren't increased, but those cuts shouldn't be to the most popular trails.

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