A North Coast lawmaker is proposing a major overhaul of California's parks system to avoid the closure this summer of 67 parks and establish stable funding sources such as asking park visitors to pay more.
The proposals for more revenue range from California drivers being able to purchase environmental license plates with the fees going to parks to buying annual park passes at a discounted rate through state income tax forms.
The goal, said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, is to find dependable revenue for a state parks system he said has been massively underfunded and now has a deferred maintenance budget of more than $1 billion.
Huffman was asked whether he believes the public will support paying more for parks, which they already fund through taxes.
"You can't have it both ways," Huffman said Friday. "You can't have this wonderful, world-class park system that costs a lot of money to operate and maintain, and not even try to ask users to pay for those benefits and amenities."
AB 1589, known as the California State Parks Stewardship Act of 2012, is to be introduced on Monday in Sacramento. Assembly members Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, and Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, have signed on as co-authors of the bill.
The proposed legislation reflects a growing sentiment that state parks will have to be more self-sustaining as Sacramento grapples with budget deficits. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered $22 million cut from the state parks budget to help solve a much larger deficit.
Parks officials contend they can achieve those savings by closing 67 state parks on July 1, including 16 on the North Coast. The list includes Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park east of Kenwood and Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville.
But Huffman and other lawmakers have raised questions about the state's methodology. Among them is Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who on Jan. 19 introduced a bill that would require the California Department of Parks and Recreation to conduct a formal review of park closures.
The legislation is intended to develop a formal and transparent process to examine potential closures using defined criteria, she said in a press release.
Huffman's bill would require state parks to document and publicly disclose its rationale for evaluating and selecting state parks for closure. It also would cap the number of parks that could be closed without lawmaker approval at 25.
But Huffman said he doesn't know whether legislation could be enacted in time to prevent closures scheduled for this summer. "I'm not sure that it can get there by July 1," he said.
Huffman will attempt to get the bill passed on an urgency basis, which would require two-thirds of the Legislature to support it.
A state parks spokesman on Friday said he hadn't seen the proposed legislation and couldn't comment on it.
California voters in 2010 turned down Proposition 21, which would have tacked an additional $18 onto vehicle registration fees paid by California motorists in exchange for drivers receiving free admission to state parks.
However, the fact Sonoma County residents supported the ballot measure means they likely would voluntarily pay more to use the parks under Huffman's plan, said Caryl Hart, the county's parks director and also chairwoman of the California Parks and Recreation Commission.
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