Policy Stinker of the Day: Arizona Mulls Hiking Vehicle Fees to Fund State Parks

As an Arizona taxpayer, an outdoor recreationist, and transportation wonk, I’m frankly offended by the latest bad idea to craftily pick our pockets in the midst of the state’s cascading budget deficits:

State parks officials are turning to the idea of introducing a car-registration surcharge to save the financially crippled parks system from deterioration or even possible shutdown.

The plan, which could face significant opposition in the Legislature, would add $10 to $15 to the cost of registering a non-commercial vehicle in Arizona. In return, Arizona motorists – who likely would be allowed to opt out of the surcharge – could enter any state park without paying admission. The proposal is modeled after programs in Montana and Washington, and backers say it would generate $32 million a year.

“Instead of paying an entry fee of $6 or $10, or buying an annual pass that costs up to $200, every citizen of Arizona with a license for a non-commercial vehicle could enter state parks for $10 to $15 a year,” said Bill Scalzo, a member of a task force on state parks appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer. “That is the greatest deal I’ve ever seen for state parks.” […]

Already, officials have closed three parks and reduced hours at 17 others. Administrators also laid off 40 percent of the parks staff, which oversees 27 parks with 2.5 million annual visitors. “We’re moving toward the total collapse of the parks system,” said Bill Meek, head of the Arizona State Parks Foundation, a non-profit advocacy organization.

Some lawmakers say they would consider supporting a registration surcharge, so long as motorists could opt out. “I think that would be an excellent way to go,” said Rep. Nancy Young Wright, D-Tucson, whose district is home to Catalina State Park. “We need to protect opportunities to connect with nature.”

From where I stand in Arizona, over 75% of the state is owned by the federal, state or local government and held in the public trust. Are we really lacking opportunities to “connect with nature?” I do a ton of hiking, biking and camping myself, and you could live here a lifetime and still not explore all of the current public land in the state. Lack of access to nature is really not much of an issue in Arizona.

House Appropriations Chair John Kavanagh nailed it:

[Kavanagh] said requiring motorists to opt out would result in too many people inadvertently donating funds because they had not read the fine print.

“It might generate great revenue, but it’s not ethical,” said Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. “Nice try, but come back with something with a little less scam in it.”

Indeed this idea is a scam, and it’s terrible public policy.

What’s the nexus between vehicle registration and state parks? Right, there isn’t one. If policymakers intend to spend the political capital to hike vehicle registration fees, you’d think they’d do so for the purpose of addressing the state’s transportation funding crisis, not the state’s park funding crisis. Arizona is facing over $100 billion in unfunded transportation infrastructure needs over the next several decades, one primary factor driving the passage of a law to facilitate private sector investment in state transportation earlier this year. With a transportation funding gap that dwarfs the state parks gap, can policymakers really mingle parks and vehicle registration fees with a straight face? (For the record, I don’t think vehicle registration fees should be raised for either purpose; mine is more a comment on the “ready-fire-aim,” tone-deaf nature of the proposal.)

This is nothing more than a sneaky tax, a way to smear costs across park users and non-users alike. Rep. Kavanagh’s right. Many people will just sign the paperwork, write their registration check and never know that they could have opted out of the parks tax. And our state legislature has shown a propensity for fund sweeps and other gimmicks to close the state’s ever-mounting budget deficits. So what’s most likely to happen is that the new funds get swept out of parks and used somewhere else to close the deficit.

Meanwhile, you’ve just incentivized more people to use the state parks at the same time that you’ve left those parks in an operating deficit and are unable to maintain them. So you don’t solve the parks deficit at all, and in fact, you accelerate the parks’ decline.

Both the transportation and parks long-term funding crises share a similar rootââ?¬â?weak user fee structures, bad price signals, and too much socialization and subsidy. As my colleague Adam Summers recently commented on California’s state park funding crisis:

User fees provide a fairer funding source since they ensure that those who actually use government services are primarily responsible for paying for those services, reducing tax dollars and giving people more choices.

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

Opening up park management and maintenance services to a competitive bidding process, and turning these operations over to private-sector or non-profit groups, could further reduce costs and help to make the parks self-sufficient while addressing maintenance backlogs.

Read the whole thing for more on why user fees and competition should be the focus of parks funding discussions, not a hidden money grab under the guise of a “voluntary” tax. It seems a lot less voluntary when the tax is already on your bill when you get it and you bear the burden of having to remove it.

For an in-depth exploration, see Adam’s 2005 study on improving services and accountability in the National Park System through user fees, as well as this 2003 Reason Foundation testimony before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on competitive sourcing in parks.

If this silly idea somehow moves forward, then count me in as an opt-out. And I’ll continue to pay their underpriced park entry fees, knowing that I’d actually be very willing to pay twice that if it was a true user fee and was relied upon to turn that park into a self-sustaining operation.

UDPATE: Washington State recently adopted this policy, and Jason Mercier at the Washington Policy Center offered a similar critique on their blog yesterday. Reading his piece, it’s now become very clear that Arizona proponents are trying to justify their idea at least partially on the basis of another state that has had exactly one month of a track record.

If Washington State jumps off a bridge, should Arizona follow too?

UPDATE 2: Thanks to Tom Jenney at Americans for Prosperity Arizona for the link. Tom’s post further explores the idea of private concessions at state parks (an idea also discussed in California recently) and is well worth a read. If concessionaires can operate the lodges, restaurants, stores, tours and activities in the crown jewels of the national parksââ?¬â?Yellowstone, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Crater Lake, Petrified Forest and Rocky Mountain, to name a fewââ?¬â?then why can’t Arizona look to innovative public-private partnerships for its state parks? After all, if it’s good enough for the Grand Canyon…

Unfortunately, as Tom notes, privatization and public-private partnerships were not even considered by the university consultants. Yet another instance of taxation as first resort.