Sunday, May 10, 2015

Even with higher camping, other fees, State Park funding still endangered

You may have heard about the changes that may be coming with DNR funding related to the state's parks and recreational areas. I wanted to touch on this and clear up some of the details involved.

We'll start with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau's summary of what these funds pay for, and the various funding changes that were being proposed. Here's what this money pays for.
Currently, DNR park staff operate 75 recreational properties open to the public, including 46 state parks, 14 state trails, two national scenic trails, eight southern forests, and five recreation areas. In addition, some properties are owned by the state and operated by local units of government (such as Copper Culture State Park) or nonprofit organizations (such as Heritage Hill State Park). Also, some properties have been designated by the Natural Resources Board, but are not developed or are under development and property operation remains largely unfunded with only limited services provided. The state park system properties contain 5,087 campsites (including sites currently being developed and 1,091 southern forest campsites), 1,420 acres of picnic areas and 32 properties with beaches totaling approximately 20 miles in length. The state recreation system also includes an extensive network of trails, some of which are open to multiple uses. This trail system, encompassing all state parks, recreation areas, forests and trails, includes: (a) 2,160 miles of hiking trails; (b) 1,950 miles of snowmobile trails; (c) 1,230 miles of bicycle trails (including 340 miles of mountain bike trails); (d) 520 miles of groomed crosscountry ski trails; (e) 830 miles of bridle trails; (f) 450 miles of ATV trails; and (g) approximately 90 miles of nature trails.

Parks account revenues are generated primarily by motor vehicle admission fees to state parks and camping site fees. Revenue to the parks account is also derived from other charges, such as camping reservations, trail use fees, golfing at Peninsula State Park and swimming at Blue Mounds State Park.
With that in mind, here's what Governor Walker wanted to do with this funding in the state budget, which includes removing all General Fund tax dollars from these duties (aka GPR funding).
Delete $4,668,800 GPR annually and 44.68 positions for operation of state parks and recreation areas and provide $3,224,500 parks account SEG annually and 44.68 positions. The net reduction would be $1,444,300 annually. In addition, increase annual state park and forest vehicle admission fees by $3, and nightly state park and forest camping fees by $2.
Basically, this would have taken away all general tax money for these maintenance duties, and entirely funded it out of user fees and related revenue. It also would have been a net cut of Operations funding by $1.44 million, with no explanation of specific measures that would have to be taken in order to reduce those expenses- yet another example of the Walker/WisGOP "figure it out at a later time" strategy.

On the day it was to be deliberated in the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, the LFB said there was a problem with Waker's proposal - the increases in admissions and camping fees to the would raise $895,000 less than what the Walker boys said it would. So now that $1.44 million cut in expenses became a hit of more than $2.3 million to the Parks Account. That, combined with WisGOP legislators having a desire to fill in the overall funding gap in the Parks Account without using General Fund money to do so, prompted the Joint Finance Committee to make some significant changes to the Governor's bill. summarized what the LFC did to "improve" the Governor's proposal.
*adopt the guv’s recommendation to delete $4.7 million annually in GPR from state park funding.
*provide $1.4 million park SEG annually for base-level funding of park and trail operations.
*require DNR to study options for additional revenues for the parks account.
*increase annual state park and admission fees by $3, but put that off until Jan. 1
*increase daily and bus admissions $1
*issue a state trail pass for $5 a day or $25 annually
*set nightly campsite fees at between $15 and $20 for residents and $19 to $25 for nonresidents, while allowing the secretary to raise or lower those rates by $5 above or below the ranges.
*increase the nightly camping fee for electricity to $10, rather than $5 now.
So what they basically did is to keep the funding for park and rail operations at the same level, instead of cutting the funding like Walker's budget did, and pay for it by raising the fees to camp and visit state parks. In fact, while the expenses for DNR Parks Operations go up a total of $1.4 million a year, the revenues go up $1.74 million in year 1 of the budget compared to what the (lowered) LFB estimates had, and $1.93 million in year 2, "banking" nearly $1 million into the Parks Account over what would have been there if the Governor's bill was allowed to stand with the higher expenses.

But even with that help, a look into the projections of the Parks Account under this motion shows it is still in need of a long-term fix, since it will take on more of the expenses of running the Parks with no General Fund dollars.

DNR Parks Account Balances under JFC Motion
2013-14 $5.65 million
2014-15 $5.93 million (+$280,000)
2015-16 $3.64 million (-$2.29 million)
2016-17 $1.905 million (-$1.735 million)

At that rate, there will need to be another $1.5 million added to this account in the next budget from some source, or the Parks budget will have to be cut accordingly. This is yet another example of how careless budgeting and panic moves to fill in the deficit-ridden Walker budget make these priorities fall by the waysides, and needs keep from being met.

Of course, maybe that's by design in this case. You'll note that in the same JFC meeting, this happened.
The committee voted 12-4 along party lines to knock back a Dem motion to prohibit the sale of state park land or naming rights, as Republicans called it a made-up issue.

Dems have been raising concerns about what moves the Walker administration may make with state parks since DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said the agency was open to looking at partnerships with corporations.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said the motion was to ensure "that never will we have a McPark or a McTrail or a McForest."
Or Koch Industries Lake? The Ashley Furniture canoeing trail? What's wrong with that?

Maybe you're just not thinking like an ALEC member. You may find this an example of beauty that should be protected.

But maybe this is just an asset that can give the DNR and state government big money if it's sold off for development. I mean, that's the REAL value here, isn't it? Not having a place where people can explore and take advantage of the great areas of Northern Wisconsin, but instead that there's serious GOLD in that lake and the land that's near it.

It's telling that the study for new revenue options wouldn't be due until December 1, 2016- after the 2016 elections. Just like how the Wisconsin DOT's budget request for $751 million in added taxes and fees was buried until the week after the November 2014 elections. These folks clearly have a plan in mind, but they don't want the people to know what it is- funny how common a trend that is from Walker and WisGOP, isn't it? Such an "Unintimidated" group.

So the Joint Finance Committee's actions regarding camping and other state parks fees won't do anything long-term to heal another self-inflicted wound in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan. It's doubly infuriating that they would defund and threaten the viability of the Parks Fund right after touting a $1 billion increase in tourism business that came to the state in 2014. And outside of the state's two largest cities, most of those dollars come in because of Wisconsin's natural beauty, and the maintenance of that beauty. This Administration is more than willing to throw away those advantages in exchange for more dirty campaign contributions, and refusing to tax for the investments that gave us those advantages in the first place.

Because why would you ever want to protect and maintain something like this, when you can sell it for less than market value to a campaign contributor, and a buck can be made off of it instead?

Nice priorities, eh?

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