Prop. 21's defeat leaves state's parks in lurch

11/04/2010 12:00 AM

08/21/2012 9:24 PM

The defeat of Proposition 21 on Tuesday means California State Parks will continue to experience partial closures, reduced maintenance and dwindling ranger patrols.

The measure failed by a 16-point margin, a spread that surprised many park advocates. It would have imposed a mandatory $18 annual vehicle license fee while giving vehicle owners free day use at all 278 state parks.

Only 10 of California's 52 counties leaned in favor of the measure. Just two were outside the San Francisco Bay Area: Yolo and Alpine.

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, chief sponsor of the measure, held out hope that parks funding might improve with a new governor in office next year.

"We're going to have to regroup, no question about that," she said. "This park system didn't get any less important because of the vote yesterday."

Proposition 21 would have generated a net income for State Parks of about $250 million annually, helping chip away at an estimated $1 billion maintenance backlog in the parks. Many of those problems will remain unfixed indefinitely, until the economy and the state budget improve.

"We will go after the health and safety priorities – water and wastewater treatment plants that have to operate," said State Parks spokesman Roy Stearns. "But some of the lower-ranking stuff will just go into the bottom drawer and wait."

Staffing in the parks also may decline because the current budget requires a hiring freeze to save as much as $7 million. No layoffs are expected, Stearns said, but new vacancies among park rangers, maintenance workers and interpretive staff will go unfilled.

The state parks department never took a position on Proposition 21, opting to stay out of the political fray. But many employees hoped it would pass to alleviate understaffing and reverse decay of the parks themselves.

"I think State Parks people are just feeling crushed," said Karen Schambach, state director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit that counts park workers among its members.

Proposition 21 supporters raised about $7 million for their campaign.

Opponents raised a pittance in comparison: $74,000. Two-thirds of that came from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and the rest from Enterprise Holdings, the nation's largest car-rental company.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said it opposed the measure because vehicle fees should be used only for transportation purposes. It offered to work with Proposition 21 supporters to "identify a fair funding mechanism" for the state's parks.

"Our fear was, if this passes, it's the camel's nose under the tent," said Wendy Nelson, spokeswoman for the No on 21 campaign. "All sorts of other worthwhile needs are going to attempt to be funded via a vehicle license fee."

Many voters objected to the mandatory nature of the license fee. Families with multiple cars, for instance, would pay the fee several times over every year but might drive only one vehicle to a park.

Some said they were not confident the funds would go to parks and not be diverted by the Legislature to some other purpose.

Donald Polzin, a retiree in Orland, said he was confused by the measure's language exempting commercial vehicles from the $18 fee. He wondered: Did this mean a family who takes their pickup truck or SUV to the parks must still pay an entrance fee, because all California light trucks are issued commercial plates?

In fact, Proposition 21's language referenced a section of the vehicle code that exempts only "heavy" commercial vehicles, not passenger pickups.

"I don't think I made a statement about parks in any way," said Polzin. "I voted no because there were just too many unanswered questions."

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