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Senate rewrites State Parks funding measure
The future of Washington’s state parks’ financial viability may depend on a legislative agreement to expand an access pass program first implemented last July.
Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 2373, concerning the state’s management of its recreational resources, passed the Senate 30-17 on March 6, but with substantial amendment. It returns to the House for reconsideration.
The bill concerns the implementation as well as the sale of the Discover Pass.
Sen. Kevin Ranker (D – 40th District, Orcas Island) crafted what is termed a striker amendment that replaced the original language of the bill that passed the House Feb. 28. Ranker’s amendment was adopted with bipartisan support.
Ranker’s amendment removes a number of sectons found in the House version of the bill. The Senate bill eliminates a $10 state parks support fee on recreational vehicle registrations. The fee would have gone into effect immediately but would have expired on July 1, 2015. The earned revenue would have helped maintain State parks.
The Senate version also removes certain provisions that would have given discounts to senior citizens, to those permanently disabled and individuals who qualify for a lifetime veteran’s disability pass.
The Discover Pass was created during last year’s legislative session and went into effect July 1. An annual pass costs $30 while the day-use permit is $10. It is required on all vehicles that access or park on recreational lands.
The original legislation was created to make up for the loss in state general fund support. During the 2007-09 biennium, State general fund support made up 66 percent of the parks’ operating budget. That support has shrunk to 12 percent of the parks’ operating budget.
The remainder of the operating budget consists of revenue generated through park fees for services, donations and dedicated funds from the federal government.
According to state Parks and Recreation Commissioner Mark Brown, the current revenue from Discover Pass sales is 60 percent less than what was originally projected.
The original projected revenue from Discover Pass sales through the month of December 2011 was $19.38 million. The actual revenue realized was only $8.8 million.
That shortfall and the threat of state park closures have led many legislators to attempt to revise the original Discover Pass law as an effort to boost sales and help state parks.
E2SHB 2373 as passed in the Senate:
The bill would make the pass transferable between two vehicles. The pass would provide space for two license plate numbers, and it would become active once it has been marked, not when it is purchased.
The legislation also grants State Parks, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources the authority to create a family discover pass as long as the price does not exceed $50. The family pass would be fully transferable among vehicles. It would not require a license plate number on the pass to be valid.
State Parks is also granted the authority to use unstaffed collection stations to sell the permit. The stations are essentially pay boxes. Park officials provide envelopes at the pay stations that are like registration forms requiring users to list their names and addresses. Park patrons deposit the fee amount, using cash or check, into the envelope, which they then put into the collection station. They then tear off a receipt and display it on the dashboard of their vehicle. A parks' employee collects and verifies the accumulated funds daily.
The legislation clarifies the use of the Discover Pass during events held on recreational lands by leaving it to the discretion of officials at the parks agency. Officials may waive the requirements of the pass or set fees they deem appropriate depending on a variety of details including the costs and benefits to the state, the public service provided by the event and other public interest factors.
Currently, when vehicle owners renew their tabs at the Department of Licensing, a $5 donation to State Parks is included in the total cost, but owners may decline the optional fee. Sen. Nick Harper (D – 38th District, Everett) proposed an amendment on the Senate floor to expand the opt-out donation program to include mopeds, off-road vehicles, trucks and buses. The amendment was adopted.
As a result, some legislators who supported Ranker’s version of the bill ultimately decided to vote against the measure including Sen. Mark Schoesler (R – 9th District, Ritzville). “Senator Ranker and I negotiated the striking amendment in a give-and-take process,” said Schoesler. The expansion of the opt-out program wasn’t a part of the deal, he stated. “It’s something I’m strongly opposed to,” he said.
Sen. Randi Becker (R – 2nd District, Eatonville) also voted against the measure for the same reason.
Senators Brian Hatfield (D – 19th District, Raymond) and Doug Ericksen (R – 42nd District, Ferndale) proposed an amendment to eliminate a provision in both the House bill and Ranker’s revision that would allow hotel and motel tax collected on state park land to be distributed into the state parks renewal and stewardship account, an account established to help fund maintenance and operation at the parks. Currently, revenue generated from sales of lodging services helps fund local tourism promotion. It was approved.
Ranker was pleased with the package that passed in the Senate. Speaking on the floor, he urged his colleagues to vote for the measure. “If we do not pass this bill today, we will be closing state parks,” he said.
According to Ranker, he worked with Schoesler to get the 25 votes necessary to pass the bill out of the Senate. He attracted 30 votes despite losing Schoesler's support on final passage.
Parks Commissioner Brown said, “It’s a big life line. It allows us to undo some of the staff changes we were forced to make, and keep all 125 parks open.”
Brown hopes the House accepts the measure. “We’re running out of time,” he said.
House members now must vote to either accept the Senate's amended version, or send it to a joint committee to reach a compromise before it can be sent to the governor for final approval.
The original House bill was sponsored by Representatives Kevin Van De Wege and Steve Tharinger both Democrats from the 24th District who live in Sequim.
“I have been in constant contact with my counterparts in the House,” said Ranker. However, the senator remains uncertain of how the House will treat the measure.
The amended bill has an emergency clause allowing immediate implementation upon passage and the governor's approval.