This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
State lawmakers hoping to pay for state parks with user fees – $10 day passes and a $30 annual Discover Passes – best go back to the drawing board. So far that plan isn’t raising enough money; the result is a major threat to the future of the state parks system.
The parking passes, which went on sale July 1, must raise an average of almost $2.7 million per month to pay for the parks and other state lands, about $64 million over two years.
That’s not happening. The sales are actually raising less than an average of $2.2 million per month. At that pace, only about $53 million will be raised over the next two years – a deficit of about $11 million.
Making up that difference from the general fund probably isn’t an option. Later this month, lawmakers will try to plug a budget hole of more than $2 billion.
And prospects aren’t great that the state revenue picture will improve significantly within the next year or two.
In other words, users will have to pay more for using public lands. And state officials must persuade more people to buy the Discover Pass.
Making it easier to buy is one strategy. That’s already happening to some extent. Last month, people could start buying a Discover Pass when they renewed their vehicle license tabs. But those who don’t can run into a problem if they show up at a park and find no one selling the passes. That’s often the case at smaller parks.
Another frequently cited problem for sluggish sales is the fact that the Discover Pass goes with the vehicle, not the purchaser. So folks who want to take the family car to a nearby state park for day visits but want to take the RV to a destination park for a weeklong camping trip have to buy separate $30 passes.
Lawmakers should try to find a way to make the Discover Pass more like the national parks’ Senior Pass – the $10 pass available to senior citizens that gets them admission for life to the national parks. That pass goes with the person, not the vehicle.
The state could also take steps to make the Discover Pass more of a bargain. Arts organizations and public TV, for instance, often offer some kind of bonus for signing up – such as a gift or guest passes. That might not be practical for the state parks, but why not offer priority parking (first come, first served) to Discover Pass buyers that wouldn’t be available to those who only buy day passes? Or offer a discount for buying more than one pass; that might encourage people to buy Discover Passes as gifts.
Surely there are other creative ideas for increasing sales. And it’s incumbent on state officials to explore them. The alternative – closing parks and state lands to public use – is unthinkable.