Once again, state parks need funding

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If Washington state government does not have enough money to properly run schools, the prison system and the parks system, it can’t simply borrow money as the federal government does.

The state budget must balance. Right now, it’s not. Talk in Olympia is $1 billion or so needs to be cut.

And that puts the state parks system in a tough spot.

The Legislature previously cut funding for parks. The plan was to eventually eliminate all state funding and operate parks solely on the money from user fees.

It’s not going as planned. The $30 annual park pass and $10 daily fee was expected to raise $64 million for state-lands agencies over a two-year period. Now, six months from the end of the two years, parks have collected just $24 million. It’s unlikely another $40 million will be generated by this summer.

This budget hole has legislators pondering options. Some would like to see the Legislature pledge taxpayer subsidy for the parks to keep them open and in good condition.

“Those facilities are there for the citizens of the state to use, and many of them can’t pay. … Every year you will see fewer people using those state parks and every year you will see less revenue, not more,” Joe Mentor, treasurer of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, told lawmakers recently in explaining why money from the general fund should be used to operate and maintain parks.

It’s an excellent point. But if several million dollars to subsidize parks is taken from the general fund, what should lose funding? Ask a thousand people and get a thousand different answers. The only constant is it shouldn’t be from the program that person cares deeply about.

Senate Republicans are toying with the idea of four-year diversion of money to parks from a tiny tax on grocery items ­— 0.015 percent — earmarked for litter cleanup and recycling programs. The $20 million that could be gained from that tax doesn’t totally solve the problems and, of course, those who are passionate about the environment are outraged.

Ultimately, it is about lawmakers and the voters establishing priorities.

We, for example, see the parks system as more important than the public art projects financed by a half of one percent of state construction projects.

The arts program certainly has merit. Washington, including Walla Walla, has excellent public art because of this program.

Art is important, parks are more important. Others see it differently.

Perhaps some of that money can be used for parks.

The answer to this parks funding problem — like most in Olympia — will make some people very happy and some very unhappy.

If lawmakers believe state parks are an important function of government, they should provide the money necessary and eliminate something else.

If not, close parks and cut costs to match the funding available.

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