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User fees: The price we’ll have to get used to paying

Post by Cheryl Tucker on Dec. 27, 2010 at 7:33 pm |
December 28, 2010 10:53 am

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

If you ride a ferry; hike, hunt, fish, camp or kayak on state land or waters; visit state parks; water crops; or develop land, get out your pocketbook. New user fees or increases to existing ones are on the horizon.

Sadly, that appears to be the wave of the future, or at least the near future. The alternative – discontinuing services and closing state lands to public use – must be avoided. If user fees can prevent that, then so be it.

Those fees are part of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed state budget and are likely to be in the final budget package after the Legislature meets in 2011.

The fees reflect what she thinks the electorate was trying to say Nov. 2: Don’t tax me. Voters rejected a small tax on candy and soda pop and approved an initiative making it virtually impossible for the Legislature to raise taxes. They rejected an income tax on the wealthy. It’s hard to interpret that as anything but a no-taxes message.

With that message in mind and a looming $4.6 billion deficit, Gregoire had only two places to go: deep cuts to state government and higher user fees. Her proposal incorporates both.
It would cut $47 million from the state parks’ $67 million budget and end state funding by 2012. It also would raise the cost of fishing and hunting licenses, and require those who seek development and water rights to pay more of the state’s cost of processing their applications. Campers, kayakers, hikers and other visitors to lands managed by the state would have to pay for access.

It shouldn’t be too hard to sell the fees to legislators. Republicans have long pushed them, and Democrats know that retreating too far from user fees would mean even deeper cuts for education and social services.

With 66,000 low-income people standing to lose their subsidized health care if the Basic Health Plan is killed – another piece of Gregoire’s budget proposal – it’s hard to argue that those who use state lands and waters shouldn’t also feel pain.

The Legislature only needs a simple majority to pass fee increases as opposed to the two-thirds majority now needed to raise taxes – thanks to voter-approved Initiative 1053. Given the strong support for that ballot measure, it’s highly unlikely that many legislators would support tax increases this session – although there’s talk about doing away with some of the tax breaks businesses now enjoy.

Some might support sending a tax measure to the voters as a way of fending off some of the more serious human services cuts, but they can’t bank on passage for balancing the budget.

With a user-pays system for managing state lands and waters, inevitably some properties won’t be self-sustaining and will have to be closed – at least temporarily. In those cases, the state should consider giving local governments the option of operating them before mothballing begins.

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