California voters signaled their lack of interest in new taxes when 58% of them cast ballots against Proposition 21, which would have levied an $18 registration fee on most cars to raise money for state parks. The initiative, a classic example of ballot-box budgeting, deserved to fail. Parks are only one of many state services that have been cut back steeply; if the state is going to raise taxes, the revenues should be directed toward the general fund for the Legislature to apportion.
You could say, though, that the parks glass is 42% full. Even though the proposition failed, more than 3 million voters signaled their willingness to support parks with at least a modest sum each year. Now the challenge for the state is to turn this goodwill into funding.
As much as we love our open spaces, one idea that's being floated should sink before it can be written into legislation: stealth donations. That's what Washington state resorted to when its parks faced similarly severe cuts. It had previously encouraged motorists to help fund parks by adding a voluntary $5 to their vehicle fees during their annual registration. In 2009, though, the state turned that around — the parks money was added to motorists' registration tabs automatically unless they checked an opt-out box and deducted the sum from their totals. The percentage of motorists who paid the $5 soared from a handful to more than half.
If that's success, we'd rather suffer along — or at least find a more morally acceptable way to raise cash. The problem is that many Washington state residents reportedly didn't read the registration document carefully or didn't understand it; they had no idea the state had charged them for a "donation." California residents shouldn't be tricked or intimidated into "volunteering" their cash.
Admittedly, most of the ethically acceptable options wouldn't raise anything close to the $500 million a year that Proposition 21 would have. But they might help keep parks from closing.
California should explore a true donation tied to yearly vehicle registrations — and build support for state parks by providing a one-day park pass in return. It also should design a snazzy new special-interest license plate, much like the existing ones for Yosemite National Park or the Lake Tahoe area, and send all the revenues raised to parks. Two other possibilities: Price the plates at $150 a year or more in exchange for free entry to state parks. Persuade the entertainment and tourism industries, both of which rely on parks, to help create a private trust fund for them.
With more than 3 million voters interested in helping the parks, the state should be making it easier for them to do so.