Lawmakers seek to match Discover Pass fees from general fund


Lawmakers tried to move the parks system off the state budget and onto user fees, but so far there have been simply too few users. Now a proposal with bipartisan backing calls for restoring some of the money.

A proposal introduced Thursday by Republican parks-committee chairman Kirk Pearson of Monroe with backing from the panel’s lead Democrat, Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island, would match the parking fees brought in by the Discover Pass with an equal sum from the state’s general fund.

A separate idea put forward by Pearson and the Senate’s GOP-dominated majority is a four-year diversion of money to parks from a tax on grocery items that is meant for litter cleanup and recycling programs.

Money from the main state budget will be hotly contested in the Legislature, which faces a court order to provide more dependable school funding and is seeing everyone from college officials to mental-health advocates crying out for relief from years of cuts.

Diverting all of roughly $20 million in litter taxes won’t be easy either, even though lawmakers have grabbed money from that fund in the past for general needs. “It’s not popular with a lot of people,” Pearson acknowledged at a public hearing where it soon became clear he was right.

“The tax dollars are going to programs that mean something for the environment,” Jan Gee, president of the Washington Food Industry Association, said after the hearing.

The GOP-backed plan builds on a suggestion last year by then-Sen. Dino Rossi. It stirred some interest in the Democratic minority on Thursday, although not pledges of support.

“There’s a beauty to the idea that if we’re going to sweep it, let’s sweep it for state parks,” Rolfes said of the litter fund.

Still, the idea drew fire from a variety of interests — not just from the businesses that pay the 0.015 percent tax but also from government agencies that use the money and even from public-lands advocates complaining about a part of the measure redirecting money away from parks’ expansion projects and land purchases. It would mandate that money instead be spent on park maintenance, which some Republicans say should be a bigger priority.

Planned projects that would lose funding include a parking addition at the proposed Nisqually State Park and the purchase of 214 more acres of privately owned land for the Eatonville-area park, as well as the purchase of a recreational-vehicle resort next to Millersylvania State Park south of Olympia.

Opponents said the projects could generate more visitors and revenue. They agreed with supporters that more money is needed to keep the existing parks open, staffed and maintained.

“That’s why you need to put money (from) the general fund to help us, to pay to maintain those facilities,” Joe Mentor, treasurer of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, told lawmakers. “Those facilities are there for the citizens of the state to use, and many of them can’t pay. … Every year you will see fewer people using those state parks and every year you will see less revenue, not more.”

Unless lawmakers add some revenue, parks are set to receive no money at all from the next two-year general-fund budget.

Instead, they are supposed to rely on fees such as the Discover Pass. But the $30 annual pass and $10 daily fee, created in 2011 and intended to raise $64 million for state-lands agencies in its first two years with most going to parks, has instead raised just shy of $24 million after 18 months.

Park advocates along with Pearson and Rolfes call for a state match of parks’ Discover Pass proceeds, which are projected to total $27 million for the two-year period ending this June.

The same measure also calls for giving the parks extra state funds to make up for what they forego because of free admission and free or reduced campsite rentals for low-income seniors, the disabled and others — at a cost of $7 million every two years according to the parks agency. The bill also adds food-stamp recipients to the list of people entitled to free admittance.