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. Out-of-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 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.