“I’m not getting up until there’s coffee,” said my bride, glaring balefully at me. Fair enough. It was seven a.m. on a Sunday, the day after we had put in a fairly hard shift with many other volunteers at a Land Trust of North Alabama trail maintenance event. We were too knackered, and had too many other things on the schedule, to put in a hike on Saturday afternoon, and the forecast for Sunday called for rain. So the deal was that I’d get up at my usual early hour, check the forecast and radar, and roust Ruth if there was a chance of getting in a short hike.
After a dose of coffee, we were on the road to Elkmont to try to get in a short segment of the Richard Martin trail, but conditions kept vacillating through drizzle, rain, light rain, general murky oppressiveness, and back to drizzle. We decided to do a little scouting for a kayak trip we’ll make later this year, then headed back to the house. On the way back, as soon as we left Limestone County and entered Madison County, Ruth pointed out that the rain had stopped and the skies seemed a little clearer. My theory is that Elkmont has its own microclimate, probably due to goat flatulence.
Speaking of goat flatulence, let’s turn our attention to the Alabama Legislature.
I believe Mark Twain got it right when he wrote, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”
Our representatives on Goat Hill didn’t cover themselves in glory last year, requiring two special sessions to pass a budget that resulted in the loss of five state parks (though happily, two of them have re-opened under local government management) and curtailed dates of operation and services at many other parks. As news of the proposed cuts spread, one state senator even proposed eliminating the Forever Wild land acquisition program to pay for keeping the parks open, drawing this rebuke from yours truly. I wasn’t the only one to complain, and the bill was withdrawn.
See, here’s the problem with state park funding in Alabama — the state doesn’t provide any. Well, if only that were the problem. Not only does the state not provide any funding, it actually takes away the money that the parks raise through admission and user fees.
I’m exaggerating a little — the state does provide a small amount of funding that supports the Parks Division of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (the folks in Montgomery) — but the bulk of the budget for operating the parks is raised by the parks themselves. Some parks operate at a profit; other parks operate at a loss, but overall the system is self-sustaining.
However, in our recession-era lean budget years, revenues are down, expenses are up, and political fortitude is conspicuously absent in our elected representatives. As a result, the legislature has transferred over $30 million from the parks over that past five years to the general fund. Reserve funds have been exhausted, and so cuts had to be made.
And here we are in the 2016 Legislative session — any lessons learned?
Well, stuff hasn’t gotten any cheaper, there’s no windfall money to prop up the budget, and there’s still no appetite for raising taxes in one of the least-taxed states in the union, so it seems likely that we users of the parks will pay our fees only to see our parks close and the money thrown down some bottomless hole. And the parks can’t do any kind of planning with the money that they raise, because they’ll likely be mugged by the Legislature again.
But wait! To quote Oliver Goldsmith, “Hope, like the gleaming taper’s light, adorns and cheers our way.” And from the most unlikely source: Senator Clay Scofield, the author of the bill last session aimed at gutting Forever Wild. I must give Senator Scofield credit — he learned his lesson, and he really seems sincere in his efforts to keep the parks open. He and Representative Kerry Rich have introduced bills that will prohibit the Legislature from redirecting funds raised by the parks. SB 260 and HB 249 are identical, and call for a constitutional amendment that will ask voters to approve the following proposal:
“Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to prohibit any monies from the State Parks Fund, the Parks Revolving Fund, or any fund receiving revenues currently deposited in the State Parks Fund or the Parks Revolving Fund, and any monies currently designated pursuant to statute for the use of the state parks system from being transferred for another purpose other than the support, upkeep, and maintenance of the state parks system.”
Knowing our Legislature, I read over the entire text of the bill to see if there’s some secret drawback, but it seems legit to me. While Alabama will still be primarily depending on the users of its parks to fund them, this constitutional amendment would enable the Parks Division to do long-range planning for renovations and improvements. This bill is a modest start. If it becomes law, it simply puts the measure to a public vote, which would presumably happen in November 2016. If the constitutional amendment passes, it wouldn’t be binding until the 2017 budget, so no matter what happens now the Legislature is probably planning one last robbery for the 2016 budget. Things will get worse before they get better.
But if you’re a fan of our state parks, and you should be, ask your legislators to support SB 260 and HB 249. Given the widespread support for Forever Wild, it may seem that these bills should sail through the session, but don’t count on it. The theme for this session seems to be unearmarking, which is an effort to give the Legislature more leeway in how it builds its budgets (largely by reducing the amount of money earmarked by statute to go to mental health, old age assistance, “general welfare,” and aid to Confederate widows). That’s not to say that there won’t be any money given to those worthy causes (except possibly for the Confederate widows), but around $400 million will be freed up to be spent as the Legislature sees fit. SB 260 and HB 249 are swimming against the tide, so it’s important to speak up in support. Legislators really do pay attention to those phone calls and emails.
If you’re looking for an easy way to show your support, you can use this form letter from Conservation Alabama. If you’re more old school and want to compose your own message, you can use the Find My Legislator tool to get contact info.
In late breaking news, SB 260 was successfully passed in its committee hearing on February 23, and is now awaiting a date for its final vote in the Senate. HB 249 is having its committee hearing on February 24.
Let’s all light a candle and cheer our way!