Remember Gov. Dannel P. Malloy criss-crossing Connecticut during his re-election campaign last fall, telling residents about his plan to cut millions of dollars from the state parks system?
Neither do we, but that’s what we’re now facing. With a growing budget deficit, Malloy has proposed lopping $2 million from the parks budget, a reduction of more than 17 percent. That’s excessive, but what can be done?
Well, that depends: Are Connecticut’s state parks worth $2.50 per year?
Legislation coming from the General Assembly’s Environment Committee would set up a State Parks Sustainability account, funded mainly through a voluntary donation attached to motor vehicle registrations; that is, there would be an “opt-out” for those who chose not to donate $5 (or perhaps more) every other year when they renew; otherwise the donation would be automatic.
This wouldn’t be enough to fully fund the parks, but it would be more than enough to replace the governor’s cut, since “opt-outs” seem to generate a lot more revenue than “opt-ins.”
“This idea is not to replace the general fund commitment,” Environment Committee Senate Co-chairman Ted Kennedy Jr., D-Branford, told CTMirror.org. “It’s to augment the general fund commitment.”
This sounds like it could be a very good idea — if only a way can be found to keep lawmakers from then reducing the parks budget by a similar amount, or raiding the parks fund the way they’ve long been tapping into the Tobacco Settlement fund and other earmarked funds. The thinking is that structuring the $5 as a charitable donation, rather than a fee or a tax, could protect it from being redirected.
“The state has a problem keeping its hands to itself,” said Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam.
It costs around $18 million a year to operate the parks, and state legislators have been looking for new funding sources, which might include expanded concessions, sponsorships and higher parking fees. Any change that eliminates the first-refusal right on concessions enjoyed by the Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind would likely cause protests, but imposition of reasonable fees to the state might be workable. The mainstay of Kennedy’s idea, however, is the motor vehicle fee, and that idea should be explored.
If Malloy’s proposed cuts go into effect, said Rob Klee, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, folks could expect to see reduced hours at some parks and campgrounds, less staff, less maintenance, even an earlier end to the summer season.
Besides, at a time when many of us seem to be so sedentary, passively playing with our electronic devices, why would we want to limit people’s opportunities to get out into nature and be active? And why would we want to give up any of the economic benefits our state parks bring by attracting a reported average of 8 million visitors, more than twice the state’s population?
People love their parks — a day at the beach, an afternoon of fishing, ghost stories around a campfire — these things bring families together, creating memories that last a lifetime. So let’s not have overflowing garbage cans, bathrooms in disarray, beaches with no lifeguards on duty.
Let’s find some way to fund Connecticut’s 140 state parks and forests.