California’s Prop. 21 Would Perpetuate the State’s Parks Plight

Proposition 21 (“Vehicle License Fee for Parks”) on the California ballot this fall would increase taxes raise vehicle registration fees by $18 per vehicle in hopes of raising an additional $500 million annually to help fund the state’s 278 parks. It would also grant most California vehicles free admission and parking at state parks and beaches.

There is little doubt that many of California’s parks are in desperate need of improvements and upgrades, but ironically, Prop. 21 defendants unwittingly prove that the state cannot be trusted to maintain these parks.

Under the state’s negligent stewardship the parks have accumulated over $1 billion in deferred maintenance. The state has also closed or deeply reduced services in 150 parks during the past year. The Los Angeles Times reported last year that only 13 of the state’s 278 parks were financially self-sustaining. This past week the newspaper reported that California is about to run out of toilet paper in its rural parks – apparently the bank cancelled the state credit card used to purchase supplies due to lack of payment and won’t reinstate the card until a state budget is enacted.

Even if one assumes that the state would miraculously manage parks better with additional funds, which is a stretch… what do vehicle registrations have to do with parks?

As my colleague Len Gilroy wrote last year there is no nexus between transportation and state parks. Given California’s ongoing infrastructure crisis you’d think that any fees derived from transportation would be dedicated to transportation – not parks. A 2006 Reason Foundation traffic congestion study showed that California needs to add 13,100 new lane-miles costing $122 billion by 2030 to keep up with population growth. More recently, Reason Foundation’s 19th Annual Highway Report ranked California 48th out of 50 in overall highway performance and cost-effectiveness. The state spends over $90,000 in administrative costs for every mile of road it controls – that’s money that never makes it to the roads because its spent on bureaucracy.

Another fundamental flaw with Prop. 21 is that it ignores basic economics. All Californians would be granted unlimited access to the state’s parks and beaches for only $18 a year. This price is far too low and does not reflect the value, or the true operational and maintenance costs, of the state’s parks. Lowering the prices would likely drive up demand creating a glut of visitors at appealing parks and inevitably accelerating their maintenance needs. This move could also hurt smaller parks because park-goers with limited time and pre-paid admittance are more likely to visit the best, most popular facilities.

For a sustainable solution to the parks funding problem the state should rely on user fees in order to distribute revenue to the parks that need it – this would align revenues with operational and maintenance costs. Instead, Prop. 21 would funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into a centralized slush fund under the assumption that state bureaucrats could be able to predict shifts in seasonal demand for over 278 facilities with artificially low prices.

As my colleague Adam Summers wrote last year:

User fees offer practical benefits such as increased park management flexibility-allowing park managers to adjust to economic conditions or changes in park visitors’ recreational preferences-and greater financial accountability. States such as Vermont, New Hampshire and Texas have realized significant park services cost savings through user fees.

There is no need for California’s state parks to become BYOTP (Bring Your Own Toilet Paper). If state policymakers wanted a sustainable solution to keep their parks open they would expand use of public-private partnerships (PPPs) to ensure funding and maintenance. Agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Tennessee Valley Authority and the Lower Colorado River Authority have made extensive use of concessionaires to operate and maintain complete parks and campgrounds. Notably California State Parks themselves have already used a version of this approach, demonstrating its value. When they ran out of state funds to complete a renovation of camping loops at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park earlier this decade, they partnered with a concessionaire who financed 24 new cabins and other improvements totaling over $1 million.

More Reason Foundation work on public-private partnerships and parks can be found here, here, here and here.