In the battle to save the state parks against the proposed closures, I’ve seen a number of proposals made for ongoing funding. Some are for specific taxes, or a percentage of a proposed tax (the soda tax) to be dedicated funding for the operations and maintenance of the parks. What all of them have in common is the notion that there should be some form of dedicated, specific and ongoing funding for the parks – and only the parks. It’s an attractive idea, and one I might be in favor with, except for an issue: Keeping the politician’s hands off the funds.
Just yesterday, DEC announced the closure of more campgrounds and day use areas. Although these particular campgrounds operated at a loss, they’ve always operated at a loss. What’s troubling about this is that last year was a banner year for the DEC campground system. The system is supposed to be self-funding, with the revenues going into a special reserve account. That is, the revenues from last year should have been more than enough to cover the expenses of operating this year. That there is a sudden reduction in funding indicates that what should have been a “locked box” has been unlocked.
This sort of behavior has been distressingly common with our state government of the past decade. “Dedicated” funds, with specific revenue generation designated are often diverted when fiscal crunches come along. The road funds are suddenly “unlocked” to fund the DMV budget, leaving much less for road maintenance. The fund that is supposed to be for purchasing environmentally sensitive land, easements, and other environmental projects is “swept” for money to make the budget balance. A special fund to pay for snowmobile trail maintenance – which also benefits summer hikers – paid for by fees from snowmobile registrations is swept to grab money, and now the state is proposing to take a million dollars a year from it to cover “state management expenses.” The list of examples goes on quite a ways.
As we debate how to keep our parks and campgrounds open for the future, one of the facets of that funding proposals must address is how do we keep the politician’s fingers out of the pie? It’s not enough for us to come up with a more permanent funding mechanism if at the first opportunity, the state decides that it needs to – just this once – take some money out of it for other purposes. What the experience has been is that “once” is often “forever.” We need to ensure that when we say it’s for the parks, it’s just that – for the parks and nothing else. Otherwise, we’ll be looking at future “just this once” times and returning once again to the same issues.