SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California lawmakers have a hard time agreeing on most budget matters, but the effort to keep state parks open is encouraging rare bipartisan deal-making.
A handful of bills coming up in the Legislature next week aim for short-term solutions to keep parks open in the coming year and longer-term budget fixes so parks will not be threatened in the future.
A Senate proposal would save most of the 70 parks on the state's closure list in part by redirecting money from a variety of other sources. An Assembly bill would raise money through a new state parks specialty license plate, stepped-up fee collection and tax incentives for buying an annual park pass.
Another bill would create a new kind of vanity license plate to fund parks and other open spaces.
Californians reserved about 10,000 campsites in state parks for Memorial Day weekend. But while the 280 parks remain popular, they have become increasingly difficult to fund.
Facing a $22 million shortfall in operating costs, the Department of Parks and Recreation plans to close several dozen parks on July 1.
Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, is one of dozens of lawmakers working to preserve the parks he calls "God's gift to California."
"This is fundamentally ill-conceived, the notion that we would close a quarter of our state parks in a matter of months over what turns out to be a relatively modest amount of money," the Palo Alto Democrat said in an interview
He has teamed with Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, on a legislative package they are calling their "Sustainable Parks Proposal." It would use state funding sources to cover the money the department would save by shuttering parks and provide a surplus for general maintenance.
Many of his proposals rely on money from other state funds to pay for work the department currently finances itself. For instance, the parks department uses its own dollars to maintain its roads, when it could use money from the state's $500 million motor vehicle account, Simitian said.
The senators represent districts that rely heavily on tourism and say that shutting down parks is a shortsighted budget fix that ultimately will hurt the state's economy and encourage vandalism.
But with the state facing a severe general fund shortfall this year, lawmakers will need to ensure that no other agency is raiding the funds they want to earmark for parks. For instance, Gov. Jerry Brown's May budget revision counts on a $300 loan from the same motor vehicle account Simitian targets.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, hopes to keep parks open by limiting the department's ability to close them and by helping generate more revenue.
His Park Stewardship Act would require the department to look for alternatives before closing parks and make those decisions more transparent. The bill also would create a new specialty license plate to raise money and force the department to be more diligent about collecting entrance fees.
Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, is one of several Republican co-authors.
"This crosses the partisan warfare up here," he said. "Parks are used by everybody: Democrats, Republicans and decline-to states. None of us want to see them treated like a foreclosed home, where they just deteriorate and destroy the neighborhoods that they're in."
In the Senate, Republican Doug La Malfa of Willows has written a bill that would allow California drivers to buy special eight-character vanity plates, with a portion of the additional fees going to state parks and open-space preservation.
State parks legislation has sailed through the committee process in both houses and inspired bipartisan news conferences, including one last week with the 32-year-old great-great grandson of naturalist John Muir.
"My great-great grandfather dedicated his entire life to the vision of parks, and fought hard," Robert Hanna, who lives in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, said in a telephone interview. "I'm happy to see that people are finally coming together."
The state has been working for months to find nonprofits, local governments and private donors to take over maintenance duties it can no longer afford.
Roy Stearns, a parks department spokesman, said the department has found partners for 36 parks and is hoping to turn operations for 20 more over to private concessionaires.
Earlier this month, the department closed Providence Mountain State Recreation Area in the Mojave Desert near the Nevada and Arizona borders. Lawmakers are hoping it will be the only park sacrificed to fill the budget shortfall.
"People have been scratching their heads for the past three years," Evans said. "This has to be a solvable problem."
The state parks proposals:
- AB1589 would limit the Department of Parks and Recreation's ability to close parks and would set up several new funding mechanisms. Among other things, the bill would require the department to modernize the way it collects fees and allow residents to donate to the department by buying special license plates or checking off a box on their tax returns. The department would need legislative approval to close more than 25 parks through 2016.
- A budget plan by Simitian would transfer money to the parks department from an array of state funds, including the federal Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund and Local Assistance Program. The transfers would last for five years. Evans has written two bills that would complement the proposal. SB974 would require increased public involvement in decisions about closing and re-opening state parks. SB1078 would encourage the department to establish an "innovation team" that would take a more entrepreneurial approach to raising revenue.
- SB1454 by La Malfa would authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to sell vanity license plates with eight characters, up from the seven characters currently allowed. The extra fees would fund open space protection, state fairs and programs administered by the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Associated Press writer Don Thompson contributed to this report.