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Capitol Journal: Parks vs. ballot box budgeting

ElectionsPoliticsCitizens Initiative and RecallVehiclesReferendaState Parks

California's magnificent state parks are falling apart fast.

The budgeting system for state government is in shambles and practically dysfunctional.

Proposition 21 on the November ballot would fix the parks. But it would pound another kink into budgeting for the rest of government. Or maybe not.

This one is tough. And as with most tough policy issues, simplistic rhetoric doesn't get to the real crux of the matter.

Yes, we all love parks -- some of us more than others, but no one wants to see them continue to deteriorate. The issue isn't the glory of parks. It's who pays to save them. And who decides.

And yes, ballot box budgeting is a scourge of state governing. It reduces the flexibility of the governor and the Legislature to act. But if they're incapable of acting, should the voters then solve the problem themselves?

Besides, Prop. 21 is sort of benign ballot box budgeting because it would generate a new revenue source to pay for its spending proposal. It wouldn't merely lock up a chunk of the state General Fund, as previous ballot initiatives have.

"This would have been easier to pass if it just said the Legislature must spend $300 million a year on parks," says Joe Caves, campaign coordinator for Prop. 21. "But that's ballot box budgeting. We're letting the voters decide whether they want to pay additional for parks."

Prop. 21 would impose an $18 surcharge on vehicle registration, except for commercial vehicles and trailers. In return, the vehicles would be entitled to free day-use entry and parking at state parks. Fees could still be charged for tours and overnight camping.

The surcharge would generate about $500 million annually. All of that would have to be spent on operating, maintaining and repairing state parks (85% of it) and protecting other wildlife and natural resources (15%).

But Prop. 21 actually would give the Legislature more flexibility over the deficit-plagued General Fund. That's because lawmakers could "back out" -- in budget speak -- the roughly $140 million in General Fund money currently being spent on parks and allocate those dollars to other programs, such as education and healthcare.

In all, after subtracting the loss of General Fund money and vehicle entry fees, state parks and wildlife programs would come out at least $250 million ahead annually, the legislative analyst calculates.

Backing the ballot initiative are the private California State Parks Foundation and a long list of environmental organizations and activists. They've raised roughly $5 million and have banked enough for TV ads, Caves says.

There's only token opposition, primarily from the automobile manufacturers lobby. The automakers feel they're being unjustly picked on.

"They're tired of all these nickel and dime car taxes," says Rob Stutzman, a strategist for the lobby, called the Auto Alliance. "They're not opposed to vehicle fees, but they want them connected to funding transportation.

"If this passes, where does it end? Does the teachers union come up with a $50 fee for schools?"

Actually, the vehicle license fee -- the controversial "car tax" -- funds all types of local government services. The smaller vehicle registration fee does help pay for the DMV and CHP.

Eugene F. Erbin, Sacramento lobbyist for the automakers, says: "We're not opposed to parks. But we don't want to be the easiest target."

The automakers, however, don't oppose Prop. 21 enough to spend much money fighting it. They've put up less than $50,000 and plan no advertising.

One glaring fault in Prop. 21 that embodies the evils of ballot box budgeting is its lack of any provision allowing the Legislature to amend the measure. If the lawmakers wanted to tweak the initiative in any manner, another ballot measure would be required.

That was a political decision.

"Voters don't trust the Legislature," Caves notes, "and if there was even a suggestion that it could change the measure, voters would find that completely unacceptable."

I called state Parks Director Ruth Coleman. Legally, she can't advocate Prop. 21's passage. But she'd love the stable source of revenue the initiative would produce.

There's a backlog of $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance, she says. It includes leaking roofs, rotting water pipes, broken fences, eroded trails....

"We do a lot to hide it," she adds. "If a bathroom is nonfunctioning, we put a lock on it. We were locking every other bathroom on the beaches."

Coleman is one parks director who actually camps regularly and personally inspects the facilities and staffing.

"I was camping at El Capitan State Beach in Santa Barbara County and saw a ranger during the evening," she recalls. "I asked her how many rangers there were. She said, 'I'm the only one. The only one for El Capitan, Refugio and Gaviota.'

"They're a few miles apart. The parks were full, maybe 3,000 people. I said, 'I hope nothing goes wrong.' Anything that goes wrong in a city can go wrong in a campground."

She'd like to hire more rangers as well as arrest the decay.

But, I ask myself, why shouldn't revenue raising be a decision for the governor and the Legislature? They're the ones who should be creating surcharges to fund parks. That's their responsibility.

Then I remembered it's politically inconceivable. That would require a two-thirds legislative vote. And Republicans have pledged to vote against anything that smacks of a tax hike.

If the Legislature's two-thirds rule for tax increases ever gets dumped, then I'll fret more about a majority of the people voting to tax themselves.

In an ideal world, Sacramento would salvage the parks. But it's incapable. So the public has an opportunity with Prop. 21.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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