Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Keeping our state parks open for all to enjoy: A question of common wealth

Would you pay five dollars to keep state parks open?

The state's budget woes are threatening closure of as many as four dozen state parks across Washington. The latest proposal to keep them open involves a five dollar fee added to vehicle license renewals.

And that's no April Fool's joke.

Although this idea is sure to give Tim Eyman fits, it isn't a tax because, as proposed, there would be a box on the renewal form that you could check to opt-out of the fee. That strikes me as kind of a weird way to do it, but there you go. This, Washingtonians, is what you get for letting former watch-salesman (and present snake-oil salesman) Tim Eyman hoodwink you into cutting vehicle fees and strangling public services that are critical to our quality of life.

I find something deeply sad in seeing our state reduced to pursuing an "opt-out" fee in order to raise the money it needs to conduct its legitimate function of maintaining our wonderful parks system.

It isn't the way parks should be funded specifically, and it isn't the way the state should have to raise funds generally. Also, the opt-out nature of the fee practically invites some obvious criticisms.

Indeed, State Rep. Gary Alexander (R-Olympia) got the ball rolling by trotting out that ever-oppressed group, fixed-income elderly folks, who he says will be tricked into paying $5 for parks they don't use.

I guess Tim Eyman must have been out collecting signatures in the rain or something, because otherwise I'm sure he would have said as much.

Without getting sidetracked into shooting down the canard that only people who directly benefit from the spending should pay the fees, let me just ask Rep. Alexander this: if he's such a staunch opponent of tricky paperwork maneuvers, when can we expect to see his bill on comprehensive health insurance disclosure reform so consumers stop being tricked into buying junk insurance that takes their premiums but never delivers coverage?

Because he must surely be working on such a thing, right?

Ahem. Back to the topic at hand.

Blowhards on the right will predictably decry this as an example of big government at its worst. I won't be surprised if Mr. Micromanage himself comes out against it, or threatens to put yet another anti-revenue initiative on the ballot.

My guess, a mandate to put labels in thirty six point type on any such optional fee check-boxes stating "Warning! If you do not opt out of this fee, State Treasurer James McIntire will take your money, break into your house, raid your 'fridge, leave beer can rings all over your coffee table, and rack up thousands of dollars in 1-900 phone sex charges! For the love of all that is conservative, CHECK THE BOX!"

What, not Eymanesque enough for you? It certainly passes the Tim's "probably not constitutional, but what the heck let's file it anyway" test...

This isn't a question of "big" vs. "small" government. It's a question of the state's legitimate role in establishing, preserving, and promoting our common wealth. One of the greatest daggers plunged into America's collective breast by the Reagan administration was to frame government's legitimate role in creating and preserving the common wealth as a "problem of big government."

Government has an easily described and critically important role in our society: the legitimate function of government is to provide the services and infrastructure that private citizens can't afford to provide for themselves, that corporations won't provide, and that yield benefits to society at large that are in excess of what they cost. Government's job is to build the common wealth.

This is why it is such an insidious evil to promote the "big government" framing. This misguided philosophy seeks, under the sheep's-clothing of "savings" and "economy", the impoverishment of our communities and local environments. It implies that government should be small, which in turn implies that any attempts to build the common wealth are inherently wrong.

Which they're not. We need public infrastructure and services that only government can provide. They are essential.

When government can do something like that - for example, building an interstate highway system that turbo-charged interstate commerce and enabled Americans with easy travel all around the nation - it should.

Nobody else can do it, and the benefits can be enormous. Would anybody, even the most shrill of right wing anti-government Reaganite talking heads, claim for one second that it was a bad idea for the federal government to have built the highway system? Or that we haven't gotten our money's worth?

Just ask UPS, or Federal Express, or any of the hundreds of thousands of long-haul truckers who keep goods moving in this country; their very business models depend on the highway system. Even the gleeful phrase "Road trip!", with all the freedom, enjoyment, tourist spending, and economic stimulus it implies, didn't exist before the highway system.

The federal government can - and should - do really big things like upgrading our nation's electricity grid so we can more efficiently distribute power, suffer fewer blackouts, and enable better distributed generation to support new renewable power sources. States can - and should - do smaller things, like creating and maintaining their parks, which offer inexpensive opportunities for recreation.

Private citizens can't do it: I don't, for example, personally have the authority to declare some prime plot of dirt as a state park, nor the resources to develop it into an accessible and useful public resource.

Private corporations won't do it, because if they owned the land they'd find ways to extract larger profits from it, faster. Probably by building a golf course or condominiums or something.

Only the state government - which is, after all, the embodiment of the voice of the people - can say "Hey, this area here is perfect for a state park, and if we develop it as such we can preserve it for future generations as well as creating a tourist destination that will stimulate the local economy."

That is the role of government: not to be big or small or any particular size, but to do the things nobody else can but that help us all. That includes state parks.

Collectively, how much economic activity do you think our state's one hundred and forty parks generate? I don't know, but I'm sure it's considerable.

Bridle Trails state park, a lovely preserve of green in the middle of southeast Kirkland, has spurred tons of economic activity (read: private sector benefit) in the form of construction in the surrounding areas of upscale homes with horse stabling facilities.

Down by Issaquah, Squak Mountain park is a local favorite hiking and paragliding spot, bringing tens of thousands of visitors annually. I'm guessing that no small amount of those recreational users end up eating lunch or dinner in Issaquah before they drive home, to the benefit of that community's small businesses.

That's just two. No doubt similar benefits accrue from many of the other 138 parks. Surely the anti-government types wouldn't dispute that those effects are good things, would they? Providing a market opportunity for upscale home developers and providing customers for small businesses are supposed to be good, pro-capitalist activities, right?

Yes. Yes they are. And I haven't even posed the question of how many people use the parks themselves, for personal enjoyment, annually. I can't afford to own a chunk of wilderness to go hiking or camping in. And if I did, it would represent a huge investment for something I could only use a few times a year.

But if I pay a little bit to the state - and everyone else does too - everyone can have access to 140 state parks that, collectively, we can use year round.

What a deal!

Collectively, are these uses and benefits worth $5 per vehicle license across the state? It would be difficult to argue that they do not.

So would you pay five dollars to keep our state parks open? I sure would. I don't use them much myself, but even so I don't want them to go away.

Goodness knows our state's economy doesn't need to be nickel-and-dimed to death with penny-wise but pound-foolish measures like closing state parks. Yeah, it would save a few bucks today, but it would also make it just that much harder for the local economies around those state parks to survive.

And that - regardless of what Tim Eyman or anybody else may tell you - is not something Washington State needs right now.


Blogger oldpro said...

Actually, we can 'give' the $5 (or more!) now but most people overlook it. That 'opt-in' mechanism resulted in less than $1.4M this last biennium. Changing 'opt-in' to 'opt-out' will arguably raise ten times that much...perhaps a good deal more.

Our state parks already raise about half their operating budget in fees (camping, housing, showers, building rentals, etc.)...roughly $100M. Parks are dependent on the legislature for the other half and without opt-out, that means the general fund. Even though it's only $100M in a $20+BILLION dollar budget, parks can't compete in bad economic times with cuts to children's healthcare, etc.

Parks has no reliable revenue stream of significance...hence, opt-out. A donation. We could turn it into a fee (required to pay), make it $10 and pay for the whole dang system! But not this year.

It's a good start, tho...faces reality and deals with it in a reasonable way. Far better than the $5 parking fee trial balloon which proved to be a pathetic excuse for raising funds...and drove hundreds of thousands from the parks they already owned. They went to free city and county parks instead!

April 2, 2009 12:10 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home