California's 278 state parks are undisputed treasures. Anyone who has soaked in the pools of Grover Hot Springs State Park or walked under the giant sequoias in Calaveras Big Trees State Park or seen the spring wildflowers at Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park can testify to the splendor of these public lands.
This fall, California voters must be prepared to answer two questions in regard to their state parks:
• Is the state providing adequate support for its state parks system?
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• If not, does Proposition 21 offer a reasonable and fair funding method to maintain and improve them?
Clearly, the answer to the first question is no. As we have reported, our state parks are bogged down by a $1.3 billion maintenance backlog, a legacy of neglect by the Legislature. There are parks with contaminated drinking winter, with trails so eroded they are dangerous to visitors and with too few ranger patrols, leading to crime and safety concerns.
Even worse is the prospect that, during the current fiscal crisis or future ones, the state may be forced to close state parks, as the governor proposed to do to 100 of them last year.
State parks represent both an inheritance and an investment, which puts them in a special category. These are properties and habitats donated or transferred to the state for safekeeping. We have an obligation to keep them in good condition and ensure that they remain accessible for future generations.
Furthermore, many state parks are big factors in their respective local economies. That's surely true of Calaveras Big Trees and of Columbia State Historic Park and Railtown 1897 in Tuolumne County.
If passed, this initiative would assess an $18 annual surcharge on vehicle licenses. Big commercial trucks would be exempt. In exchange, state motorists would get free day-use access to all parks, saving them $5 to $15 per carload for each park visit.
Overall, this surcharge would raise $500 million annually while relieving the general fund of roughly $140 million that now goes to state parks. Although the system would see a decline in revenue from entrance fees, the net effect would be a $250 million annual boost in funding for parks and wildlife conservation, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.
Proposition 21 is an imperfect answer to a serious problem. Ideally, the state would correct its roller coaster budget troubles so parks had stable funding. On principle, we oppose initiatives that carve out pots of state money for specific causes.
Yet those arguments must be weighed against the serious threat facing the state parks system and the likelihood that many of these parks could be closed or permanently degraded if Proposition 21 fails.
Moreover, voters need to consider the manner in which this initiative came to the ballot. Park supporters have been asking the Legislature to approve this type of fee for several years. They got nowhere amid the partisan bickering in Sacramento, so they collected signatures to put this on the ballot.
It would be also be unfair to depict Proposition 21 as a cynical money grab, as some opponents are attempting to do. Unlike some past examples of "ballot-box budgeting," Proposition 21 doesn't attempt to use bonds or borrowing for a specific cause. Interest costs on such measures rob money from the general fund. By contrast, Proposition 21 creates its own stable funding source. By so doing, it relieves the state's general fund of an obligation.
Another argument against Proposition 21 is one of equity. Business groups that oppose the measure say the $18 annual fee is regressive and will result in single mothers subsidizing a parks system they rarely use.
This is disingenuous. What is truly inequitable is the disparity of parkland across California, particularly in our valley, which has some of the largest concentrations of poverty. But Proposition 21 has some significant elements for the valley:
• Modesto's Tuolumne River Regional Park is one of four urban river parkways in the state that would be eligible for funding from it.
• The initiative calls for 7 percent of the revenue to be set aside for state wildlife areas, which include North Grasslands and others near us.
• The initiative calls for a strategic plan to address areas with fewer parks, and that would include us.
Opponents of Proposition 21 -- mainly auto manufacturers and anti-tax groups -- acknowledge the threat to state parks but offer no alternatives.
We fully acknowledge the bad economy; it's not a good time to increase taxes. But we believe a $18 annual vehicle fee is a critical investment in a state park system that provides so much enjoyment to residents and so much of a boost to the state's economy.
Please consider a "yes" vote on Proposition 21.