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  • Nick Bates

Fiscal Focus: State Parks

Each Fiscal Focus will look at our vision for key areas of public investment in Ohio and provide insight into current budgetary trends for that sector. All Ohioans are impacted by our elected officials’ budget decisions. In 2013, a new two-year state budget will be crafted – this series will provide a comprehensive overview of the major questions and concerns for Ohio’s 2014-15 biennial budget.

Why the Public Should Invest The Ohio State Parks attract more than 50 million visitors and generate over a billion in tourism dollars each year with 85% of Ohioans utilizing this great public investment.  The value of the parks is bigger than tourism dollars—the real value is the enhancement of our lives and our state. My best memories as a child were sleeping in a tent, cooking over the fire, biking, hiking, and swimming in our state parks. Now as a father, I cannot wait for my son to have similar experiences.

Ohio established the Division of Parks within the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) in 1949 to create, supervise, operate and maintain a system of state parks and to promote their use by the public.  It added ‘Recreation’ to its title in 1963 when the state developed the first state recreation plan for a parks system in the country.

The Current Reality Ohio now runs 75 state parks. When taking account for inflation, the parks have seen a loss of 23.5% of their state support since 1988. Ohio State Parks received $60.5 million from the General Revenue Fund (GRF) in the last biennial budget.  This is a $4 million decrease from the previous budget, and a $19 million cut compared to FY 2008-09.

Currently Ohio has over $500 million worth of delayed maintenance projects, including $83 million in shoreline erosion, $72 million in dam repairs, and $47 million in bathroom upgrades.  The state has attempted to fill its budget gaps over the past decade with a 45% reduction in staff, as well as closing hiking, biking, and horse trails that they couldn’t afford to maintain in a safe condition.

In addition to the continued trend of GRF cuts, in 2011 the Ohio legislature passed HB133 and HB153.  HB133 opens up state parks for oil and gas drilling and HB153 opens up the parks for logging.  Some advocates for this legislation point to the lease payments that the state will receive to supplement other state park operations.  The total amount of revenue these projects will produce is unknown.

The 2014-15 Budget Resource extraction from our parks will likely be the most contentious issue in our next state budget impacting parks.  ODNR’s website illustrates how oil and gas drilling can bring in revenue to support our parks’ infrastructure. But, drilling and logging are not the only options.  Ohioans must consider the cost associated with additional resource extraction – including park roads, loss of trees, repairs, and possible environmental clean ups.  Also, some estimates have identified only a few years worth of oil or gas from lands owned by the states.  If this ends up true, we will be looking for new revenues, once again, in a few years.  So we must look for long-term solutions, and not just a boom or bust industry that may provide temporary revenue.

The state may consider other revenues sources such as new fees. While the state charges some fees for services, such as renting a campsite, most services remain free for all Ohioans. The Ohio legislature has historically rejected this approach, because the state has established a public system that should be open to all regardless of ability to pay. In 2004, fees charged accounted for 42% of the parks operating budget.

Philanthropy is a necessary component of our State Park system – generosity reflects well on the character of Ohioans. However, it cannot make up for adequate state support. In 2004, over 7,000 people invested their free time into our parks for 346,000 hours of service. ODNR in conjunction with the Ohio BMV offers Ohioans an opportunity to place a Wildlife license plate on their car for a $15 donation. In 2006, Ohio sold just over 34,000 of these license plates.  While philanthropy is a great way to invest your own time and effort to preserve this public asset, State Parks need the type of investment that the state is able to make.

Fees and philanthropy will not be enough for the long-term investment our parks need. Drilling and logging must be balanced appropriately against the long-term financial costs and potential damage to natural beauty and intrinsic value. Long-term solutions would include how we structure taxes on corporate profits and the Ohio Income Tax. Since 2005, the income tax has been cut by 21%, and along with other revenue changes, has lead to $2.5 billion less in annual revenue. Governor Kasich has said he wants to cut the income tax again.

Speak Up! We must preserve our public investment that prior generations have made into a great system of State Parks that so many of us have enjoyed. If you would like to get involved as the state budget nears and our advocacy increases, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or sign up for our emails. Please read our past Fiscal Focus article on EDUCATION HERE and stay on the look out for the next articles on transportation, health care, and libraries.

If you’re interested in additional information on state parks in the state budget or have any other related question, please contact us.

#FiscalFocus #Parks

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