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State Parks looking to ask lawmakers for money to make up for Discover Pass shortfall

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on June 19, 2012 at 8:40 am |
January 28, 2013 6:30 pm

Lawmakers cut state parks off of taxpayer money in 2011 when they started requiring the $30-a-year Discover Pass to park on state recreation lands.

They gave the parks system $17 million in bridge funding, but after mid-2013, parks are due to be entirely dependent on user fees and donations.

But with sales of the year-old pass falling short of original expectations, the Parks and Recreation Commission doesn’t want to let go of the lifeline from the state general fund. The board is moving toward asking the Legislature for continued funding.

The agency is preparing a request for the 2013-2015 budget proposal that outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire is drawing up for her successor and the next Legislature. Parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter said the commission signaled at a meeting Monday it wants to not only cover the expected $10.5 million shortfall in revenue for the next two years, but also provide enough extra money to restore some maintenance and other services that have been cut.

Commissioners didn’t give a specific funding amount, Painter said, but staff will draw up a proposal for them to consider in August. It is likely to be less than the $17 million it received in transition funding, she said.

Painter said the agency sees it as appropriate to ask for more money in part to make up for the $9 million the parks system loses by giving discount or free passes to certain groups. Lawmakers mandated the exemptions for needy seniors and disabled veterans, among others.

While the Legislature kicked in an extra $4 million from a special fund this year to help with the shortfall, finding more general-fund money in a time of scarcity will be “very, very difficult,” said Rep. Dave Upthegrove, the Des Moines Democrat who chairs the House Environment Committee.

“I think it’s a discussion worth having,” Upthegrove said, “but I think it will be a difficult sell. I think we should be scrutinizing things like those discount programs.”

He said he has floated the idea of scaling back the popular discounts, with no success.

Upthegrove doesn’t want to see the parks completely lose state funding. Maybe the state could explore selling concessions at parks, he suggested, or selling naming rights to parks. “I think we’ll need some other revenue source.”

At least one lawmaker hopes to eventually bring back taxpayer funding for parks. Gig Harbor Democratic Rep. Larry Seaquist told public radio’s Austin Jenkins the Discover Pass should be a temporary solution.

UPDATE 10:37 a.m.: A dissenting view comes from Rep. Chris Hurst, an Enumclaw Democrat. He argues against more money without changes to the Discover Pass, which he sees as a “complete failure.”

“I wouldn’t give them a penny until they actually do this thing right,” Hurst told me.

Lawmakers allowed the pass to be transferred to a second vehicle this year to boost sales, but Hurst said he and Republican Rep. Cathy Dahlquist have argued for allowing a pass to be used with any vehicle, akin to what the national parks do.

UPDATED 9:25 to correct reference to discount passes, not Discover Passes.

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