Mercury News editorial: Simitian-Evans plan to keep state parks open deserves support

Monday, May 14, 2012

When then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger first proposed shutting dozens of state parks to help close the deficit in 2008, it was a terrible idea, and he eventually dropped it. State parks are a remarkable legacy for California's children. Tens of millions of people visit them every year, and all 278 have value.

In fact, the savings in Schwarzenegger's plan were a sham: The costs of closed parks -- lost tourism, vandalism, fires -- would have outweighed the tiny amount of projected savings.

When Gov. Jerry Brown last year proposed closing 70 parks by July 1, it was an equally terrible idea. And it still is, even in light of the deepening deficit in California's budget. The governor's May revise released Monday shows a shortfall of nearly $16 billion, with additional devastating cuts to education, health care and other services crucial to California's future. But accepting the destruction of some of California's greatest long-range assets is not the answer.

Fortunately, at least some lawmakers seem to agree. Sens. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and Noreen Evans (D-Napa) announced a plan last week that patches together funds from three sources to close a short-term gap of about $22 million and lays out a path to sustainability over the long-term. Democratic leaders in the Legislature support it. If Brown wants to save state parks and not just use them as a cudgel to get voters to approve new taxes, he should support the plan, too.

Simitian and Evans represent districts that rely heavily on the tourism these parks generate, so they understand that closing parks will actually cost the state money. They have proposed a raft of ideas to generate more money, including authorizing a specialty license plate and an opt-in vehicle license fee checkoff. They would provide liability coverage for non-profits that step up to keep parks open, and allow flexibility in staffing, so that highly skilled and paid rangers aren't, say, collecting entrance fees. They also would encourage creative ways to finance parks by allowing them to keep money they generate with new ideas.

But it will take a few years for these ideas to close the budget gap. Until then, parks will need more state money. The Simitian-Evans plan provides the funds with little affect elsewhere.

They propose redirecting $10 million from the gas tax fund, which, believe it or not, has a $500 million surplus. This money must be used for roads, including law enforcement on them, so it could help pay for rangers on patrol. They would take $10 million a year in long-term loans for five years from a federal clean water program to address the enormous backlog in infrastructure projects. And they would divert up to $21 million a year allocated for building off-road vehicle parks, some of which are on federal land.

Others are clamoring for money, but it's not as if these ideas are swiping money from schools or the disabled.

Closing some parks would destroy rural communities and reduce state tax revenue. And the state would spend more dealing with crime, vandalism and fighting fires on these unpatrolled lands than the $22 million it supposedly would gain shutting them down.

Much of what has made California a great state is crumbling around us. But its natural beauty endures, and continues to draw residents and help businesses attract workers. State parks are what keeps that beauty accessible to all Californians, not just those who can afford a house on the coast or in the mountains.

State parks are among California's crown jewels, and we can salvage them. Brown should jump at the chance.