Reporting from Morro Bay State Park — Nick Franco squinted across Morro Bay to the potential future of the California state parks system. The district superintendent of this coastal jewel, Franco ticked off money-making possibilities: Install gates and charge to get in the parking lot. Sell off the nearby county-run golf course. In the marina, bring in more concessions. Outsource to allow motorized recreation in the wetlands. And in the wild, undulating spine of sand dunes at Montaña de Oro State Park, he could foresee a string of profitable billboards facing beachgoers on the opposite shore.
"Hideous," he said.
Franco couldn't bring himself to shift his musings farther up California 1, where the state parks' crown jewel sits high above the Central Coast. "Could I make a huge profit off Hearst Castle? Absolutely. But it isn't a question of what we can do. It's a question of what we should do. It's a question of what's right."
Franco's projections were not prompted by the perennial worry about budget and staff cuts, or the system's $1.3-billion maintenance backlog. He was discussing how the future for state parks could hinge on a November ballot measure that would provide a dedicated funding source for the parks department.
The initiative, Proposition 21, is being closely watched as a possible solution to widespread budget woes afflicting state parks around the nation. California parks have seemingly been pulled from the brink of wholesale closure — as proposed by Gov. Schwarzenegger last year. But the future of the nation's oldest and largest state park system is far from secure.
The proposition would impose an $18 surcharge on motor vehicle registration. The levy is expected to raise $500 million a year and would for the first time provide consistent funding for state parks and wildlife conservation programs. The state would eliminate day-use fees and parking charges for California residents, although camping fees and boat launching charges would remain.
According to the legislative analyst's office, about $200 million currently spent on parks would remain in the general fund, available for other uses. Current funding for the state parks accounts for one-tenth of 1% of the $85-billion state budget.
Although Schwarzenegger's threat to close the parks may have been grandstanding, around the country it's a real prospect, especially in the West, where officials in Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Washington confronting huge budget overruns are considering options such as closing, privatizing or selling parks.
Closures have happened in Arizona, where the budget for the state park system has been effectively hijacked, the governor raided a voter-approved conservation and land-acquisition fund, and the Legislature stopped directing lottery revenue to a parks heritage fund.
Attempts to gain support for a vehicle-fee program in Arizona have been met with withering resistance in the Legislature. Now, the department is awaiting bids from the private sector to take over operations of at least one park, and staving off a vigorous campaign to sell properties to the highest bidder. Many Arizona parks are closed, with windows and doors boarded up, guarded by law enforcement.
"We're really not the state to emulate right now," said Renee Bahl, director of the Arizona state parks.
"That's our fate unless we solve these problems," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, one of the organizations behind Proposition 21.
The measure is opposed by various taxpayer groups who argue against it as a new tax, and a regressive one, at that. Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., says he's a big supporter of state parks, "but why should a working single mom in Compton subsidize my use and enjoyment of facilities she chooses not to use? Those who are well-off won't bat an eyelash having to pay an extra $18 per vehicle, but for those people who are working and lower middle class, $18 can be a problem."
Coupal argues that because parks enjoy broad support. it's easy to use scare tactics to influence voters.
"How many times do we have to adopt a new revenue stream ostensibly for something like motherhood and apple pie only to see it diverted into fraudulent and wasteful spending?" Coupal said. "We've been down this road before. People have heard this so many times that they don't trust Sacramento to do the right thing."
To Jerry and Jerri Parsons, closing any of California's parks is unthinkable. The retired couple hopscotch the state camping in parks with their yellow lab, Boo-Boo. They relaxed in lawn chairs at Morro Strand State Beach, where Jerry's family has been coming for vacations since 1958. More than a third of California's coast is part of the state park system.
"There would be a public uproar if they closed parks; we all care about them too much," Jerry said, adding that people on fixed incomes depend on the affordability of state facilities.