Idaho Governor Proposes Self-Sufficient Parks

Published February 19, 2010

Idaho Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter (R) is proposing to halt all general fund disbursements for state parks and push the state’s Parks and Recreation Department toward self-sufficiency. If enacted, Otter’s proposal would save Idaho taxpayers $4.5 million per year.

Parks Department Cooperating
The proposal was created in cooperation with Parks and Recreation Director Nancy Merrill, and came in response to projected state budget shortfalls of $50 million to $80 million, said John Hanian, a spokesman for the governor.

“Every state agency, every entity of state government, had to cut back,” Hanian said. The parks plan calls for 25 layoffs and a streamlined, business-model operation, he explained.

The alternative was to close parks.

“Is it ideal? Probably not,” Hanian said of the proposed funding cuts. “But is it necessary? Yes, it is. We believe we have struck a careful balance that will streamline operations but also keep our parks open, … unlike many states facing budget deficits that are closing theirs.”

Alternative Funding Sources
The governor’s proposal has been submitted to state legislators and is awaiting action.

In addition to laying off 25 workers, the plan would require the remaining park workers to find ways to pay for operations from sources other than the general fund.

“I predict we’re going to survive the cuts. We’ll still have parks open this coming season,” said Rick Just, chief planner with the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. “The governor’s idea is that parks should be able to pay for themselves, and we’re doing as much as we can.”

The agency has already increased entrance and user fees to bring in about $1 million this year, Just said. But he worries that income source has been exhausted, as park officials believe if they raise fees higher, attendance will drop.

The Parks and Recreation Department is requesting a portion of the state’s vehicle license fees be diverted to the parks system, but that legislative request probably won’t be decided until next year, Just said.

Encouraging Efficiency
Despite the worries of state officials, self-sufficiency for parks is a feasible idea, says Holly Fretwell, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC).

“I would say, in general, that when we ask individuals to be more self-sufficient, they tend to get more efficient,” said Fretwell.

For instance, the money visitors pay to enter Yellowstone National Park stays at the park instead of going toward a general treasury, she noted.

“That definitely provides benefits to the park and to the people who come to the parks. When we are taking revenues and sending them back to general funds, then we are responding to politicians. The interests of the people and politicians may coincide, but they may not,” Fretwell explained.

Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) writes from Northern Virginia.