Bipartisan group of lawmakers pushes for new fee to fund parks

Kyle Constable /

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, center, speaks about the importance of funding Connecticut’s state parks. She is joined by Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, left, Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, right, and Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, far right.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing for a new fee to ensure state parks stay open, staffed and maintained despite the state budget crisis.

The fee, which proponents want to set at $10, would be collected along with auto registration fees. In return, residents would be allowed to visit all state parks at no cost. Out-of-state visitors still would have to pay for parking at state parks that currently charge for entry.

Legislators say the fee, which they are calling a “Passport to Parks,” would generate about $10 million more in revenue than the present entry and parking fees state residents pay. Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said Thursday the goal is to keep state parks open year-round.

“Without taking care of our assets, we quickly lose them,” Osten said. “We lose them into becoming uninhabitable places and not enjoyable places.”

Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, said failing to act would mean “knee-high grass and empty campsites” at parks across the state. Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said allowing parks to become inaccessible would “create a whole new crisis” for a state already facing a budgetary one.

Ziobron said the fee revenue also would support the state’s fish hatcheries.

The plan Gov. Dannel P. Malloy outlined to close the current fiscal year’s $323 million budget gap includes taking $1 million from many of the parks’ special maintenance funds. He said state parks would have to shift from active upkeep of the grounds to “passive maintenance.”

The comment has drawn the ire of some legislators.

“This ‘passive management’ thing is unacceptable,” said Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme. “It means that people aren’t going to be there to support our parks.”

The Senate Republicans on Wednesday presented an alternative plan to close the state’s budget gap in the current fiscal year, which would leave the parks’ maintenance funds intact.

Some Republicans are backing the proposal despite the small cost to state residents. Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, said he “wouldn’t disagree” that the fee would mean new revenue, though he admitted some might call it a tax or a “user fee.”

Miner said his constituents remain frustrated they do not have consistent access to the state’s parks, and something needs to be done to change that.

The legislators said the new revenue would not be protected in the future years against a legislature that wanted to use it to close future deficits instead of funding parks.

“Today’s legislature does not control what another legislature in the future could do,” Osten said. “We are going to work hard, from all over Connecticut, to keep these funds dedicated (to parks).”