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.