Buy a license plate, fund a California park?

There are almost always good reasons not to cut programs from the state budget. Those programs or services wouldn't have been funded in the first place if at least some people hadn't found reason to like them. But cut California must, despite protests from interest groups that this or that beloved budget item must be preserved in full.

That's why a proposal by Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) is so appealing. Instead of demanding restoration of funds, Huffman proposes a more constructive response to the closure of up to 70 state parks.

Take parking, for example. State parks have raised their daily parking fees in recent years to bring in more money, but they often don't collect the fees at all. Some of these parks are on prime spots along the beach where parking fees are $15 a day. Yet many rely on a semi-honor system that works only when officials are diligent about checking and about imposing fines on those who don't pay — and the parks don't have enough staff for that. At other parks, people can't pay even if they want to; the fees are collected by staff at kiosks — except the kiosks are seldom staffed.

Huffman's modest yet creative bill, AB 1589, would use some of the $50 million or so in remaining parks bond money to equip the parks with automated systems that ensure people actually pay, and allow them to use credit cards to do so. The idea is that automated parking would quickly recoup the funds spent and continue to bring in money. The bill also calls for placing revenue-producing amenities in some parks — such as cabins for rent — as long as they didn't harm the parks' noncommercial, wilderness character.

Other provisions call for creating a vanity license plate that motorists could purchase, with the proceeds going to state parks, and allowing motorists to buy an annual state parking pass by checking a box on their state income taxes.

The bill lapses into "just don't cut me" mode in a couple of places. It calls for a compact under which the governor would agree that funding for parks would not fall below a fixed amount. Ask the University of California how well that works; it made a similar deal with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that was broken almost as soon as the ink was dry. The state can't be backed into a corner on how it spends money.

Like Huffman, we have doubts about whether the state would save much money by closing parks because the process of putting them into caretaker mode is expensive. And that's not counting the vandalism, fires and other expensive problems that could plague an unsupervised stretch of land. The debate is worth having, but the state can't be locked into spending set sums, even on its beloved parks.

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