How to Avoid Closing Washington State Parks

Many thanks to the Washington Policy Center for publishing my legislative memo today on how to avoid the closure of dozens of Washington State parks, as Gov. Inslee has proposed if his tax increase package fails to advance. Here’s an excerpt:

The threat of closing five dozen state parks is yet another variation on the well-worn “Washington Monument Syndrome” tactic designed to threaten closure or disruption of popular amenities if tax increases are not approved.

Political tactics notwithstanding, Washington’s state parks system does indeed face significant funding challenges. General fund appropriations for parks have been on the decline for years, a predictable circumstance in a fiscal football game in which funding for major spending priorities like education, healthcare, public safety and public-sector retiree benefits increasingly crowds out funding for the “nice-to-have” amenities like state parks. The sooner that policymakers and citizens understand this basic trajectory is only going to intensify — and that new solutions are needed to sustain the “nice-to-have” items like state parks — the better.

Some in Washington have begun to realize this when it comes to parks. In recent years, the legislature pushed the Washington State Parks Commission to pursue financial self-sustainability, and to its credit, the agency has pursued a range of strategies that include staff reductions, an increasing reliance on user fees and non-recreational leases, and expanding revenue-generating assets within the parks themselves. While these actions have not solved the funding challenge, they have been useful steps to keep the parks system afloat.

Short-term infusions of funding along the lines proposed by the governor are not a sustainable financial strategy if the goal is to keep parks open and thriving for the long term. Washington, like many other states, is due for a major rethinking of the structure and operation of the parks system itself. […]

Though it may be anathema to the preconceived visions held by some parks advocates, there is indeed a strong role for private-sector and non-profit operators in the state parks. For example, nonprofits played a major role in taking over operations of dozens of California state parks to help avoid closure amid 2012’s budget battles, and many municipal parks, zoos and aquariums, including New York City’s famed Central Park, have long been operated by nonprofit conservancies and “friends” groups.

Read the whole thing here or here for more on the role of the for-profit sector in operating Evergreen State parks.

Leonard Gilroy is Senior Managing Director of the Pension Integrity Project at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. The Pension Integrity Project assists policymakers and other stakeholders in designing, analyzing and implementing public sector pension reforms.

The project aims to promote solvent, sustainable retirement systems that provide retirement security for government workers while reducing taxpayer and pension system exposure to financial risk and reducing long-term costs for employers/taxpayers and employees. The project team provides education, reform policy options, and actuarial analysis for policymakers and stakeholders to help them design reform proposals that are practical and viable.

In 2016 and 2017, Reason's Pension Integrity Project helped design, negotiate and draft pension reforms for the state of Arizona's Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and Corrections Officer Retirement Plan, which both passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the state legislature and were signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey.

Gilroy is also the Director of Government Reform at Reason Foundation, researching privatization, public-private partnerships, infrastructure and urban policy issues.

Gilroy has a diversified background in policy research and implementation, with particular emphases on competition, government efficiency, transparency, accountability, and government performance. Gilroy has worked closely with legislators and elected officials in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia, California and several other states and local governments in efforts to design and implement market-based policy approaches, improve government performance, enhance accountability in government programs, and reduce government spending.

In 2010 and 2011, Gilroy served as a gubernatorial appointee to the Arizona Commission on Privatization and Efficiency, and in 2010 he served as an advisor to the New Jersey Privatization Task Force, created by Gov. Chris Christie.

Gilroy is the editor of the widely-read Annual Privatization Report, which examines trends and chronicles the experiences of local, state, and federal governments in bringing competition to public services. Gilroy also edits Reason's Innovators in Action interview series, which profiles public sector innovators in their own words, including former U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani and more.

Gilroy's articles have been featured in such leading publications as The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, The Weekly Standard, Washington Times, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Arizona Republic, San Francisco Examiner, San Diego Union-Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sacramento Bee and The Salt Lake Tribune. He has also appeared on CNN, Fox News Channel, Fox Business, CNBC, National Public Radio and other media outlets.

Prior to joining Reason, Gilroy was a senior planner at a Louisiana-based urban planning consulting firm. He also worked as a research assistant at the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech. Gilroy earned a B.A. and M.A. in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Tech.