As a new funding mechanism for state parks begins, advocates are worried about a planned change in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.
Passport to the Parks, a program in the current budget, launched earlier this month, generating funds for Department of Energy and Environmental Protection-operated parks via a new $10 fee on motor vehicle registrations.
Connecticut car owners, meanwhile, will now have free parking at all state parks. Malloy’s budget projects DEEP will see $11.5 million in revenue through the new fee.
Passport to the Parks was created as a non-lapsing account within the budget adopted in October, meaning the fund sits outside of the General Fund budget.
Malloy’s proposed revisions for the second fiscal year of the budget include bringing Passport to the Parks back into the budget as an appropriated fund.
Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Parks & Forest Association, raised concern that the change would make it easier for a governor to take those funds for another purpose.
Sweeping, or transferring, funds from a non lapsing count, while a regular budget tactic, requires legislative approval. A governor can use rescissionary authority to cut expenditures from an appropriated account to free up funds when the state is facing a deficit.
“This is, maybe, a little wonky, thinking about it this way, but one of the key ways to make sure that funding is not so easily swept away is to create a non-lapsing fund,” Hammerling said.
Chris McClure, a spokesman for Malloy’s budget office, said that non-lapsing funds are less transparent, and that making Passport to the Parks an appropriated account would allow lawmakers to better monitor payments in and out of the program.
“It is our contention even self-supporting programs like Passport should be appropriated by the legislature as part of the biennial budget process and subject to the same public scrutiny as our other expenditures,” McClure said in a statement.
DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee gave a similar defense during an Appropriations Committee public hearing Tuesday after Rep. Melissa Ziobran, R-East Haddam, questioned him about proposed change.
Klee opened his testimony by thanking lawmakers for including Passport to the Parks in the budget. He said roughly nine millions people combined visit Connecticut’s state parks annually.
“Our Connecticut state parks are an economic driver for our state and the communities they are located in,” he said in his prepared remarks. “When people visit our state parks they also visit local restaurants, shops, local farms and even the occasional brewery.”
Hammerling agreed on the value of the program, one his organization supported.
Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said that either type of account is inadequate to protect funding in Passport to the Parks.
“I think all of these things give taxpayers a false sense of security,” Markley said, adding the criticism applies generally to programs tying specific fees directly to funding for programs.
You can hear more about the debate over Passport to Parks on the Morning Record, the Record-Journal’s daily news podcast, at http://bit.ly/2EO4QJV