Prop. 21, the wrong so­lu­tion

Yes, Cal­i­for­nia’s parks need the money. But so do many pro­grams. A spe­cial tax isn’t the way to go.

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion -

Cal­i­for­nia’s sprawl­ing net­work of state parks, cov­er­ing 1.5 mil­lion acres and one-third of its coast­line, pre­serves nat­u­ral space and his­tor­i­cal sites and pro­vides a demo­cratic, low-cost form of recre­ation. But as proud as we are of our parks, are we will­ing to in­crease their fund­ing at the ex­pense of, say, med­i­cal treat­ment for chil­dren whose par­ents have no in­surance? Are they a higher pri­or­ity than home health aides for el­derly peo­ple who oth­er­wise would have to go to a nurs­ing home? Or the pub­lic col­lege and uni­ver­sity sys­tems that no longer can af­ford to of­fer needed cour­ses?

These are dif­fi­cult ques­tions, and the prob­lem with Propo­si­tion 21, the car tax for state parks, is that it pre­tends to make the an­swer sim­ple. It is an­other well-in­ten­tioned ef­fort at bal­lot-box bud­get­ing that lim­its the Leg­is­la­ture’s abil­ity to set spend­ing pri­or­i­ties.

The ini­tia­tive would levy a new $18-a-year tax on each per­sonal ve­hi­cle — com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles are ex­empted — rais­ing $500 mil­lion a year to be used solely for parks. In ex­change, day park­ing at the parks, which has reached $15 at some of the more pop­u­lar lo­cales, would be free to those ve­hi­cles. Outof-state ve­hi­cles would con­tinue to be charged the daily fee.

About $130 mil­lion of the state’s gen­eral fund now goes to­ward parks; park­ing fees raise an ad­di­tional $40 mil­lion from the 80 mil­lion vis­its made per year. It isn’t enough. Sixty of the state’s 278 parks have se­verely cur­tailed their hours, with some open only on week­ends. The park tax would be used both to up­grade ser­vice and fa­cil­i­ties and to whit­tle away at the $1.3-bil­lion back­log of de­ferred main­te­nance. The gen­eral fund money would be avail­able for other pur­poses.

For the first time in many years, Cal­i­for­nia’s parks would be flush with money. But they would be the only item in the state bud­get that could make such a boast. Schools, col­leges, DMV of­fices, health clin­ics, pub­lic trans­porta­tion — al­most ev­ery­thing has taken hits dur­ing the eco­nomic cri­sis and would con­tinue to do so.

If Cal­i­for­ni­ans are go­ing to raise taxes on them­selves, they should do it in a way that al­lows the state to al­lo­cate money to the pro­grams that need it most in a given year. As the cur­rent lack of a state bud­get shows, the Leg­is­la­ture has too of­ten dodged the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions in­volved in dol­ing out too lit­tle money to too many needs. Vot­ers should de­mand that the Leg­is­la­ture live up to its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, not fur­ther tie its bud­getary hands.

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