When the General Assembly approved the Passport to Parks in October 2017, it was great news for the state’s 140 state parks and forests. For the first time, these public lands would have steady and predictable funding to ensure maintenance, staffing and improvements well ahead of the busy summer season.
But this week, the Appropriations Committee voted to support the very action that critics of the program warned about before its passage: taking funds for completely unrelated programs.
This is the worst possible news for state parks, for the funding program, and for over 9 million park visitors who will visit State Parks and the communities hosting them this year.
Any diversion of funds, no matter what amount, sets a bad precedent. A small diversion this year becomes a larger one next year. In time, the parks and forests will be back where we were just a few years ago when four campgrounds were closed and Park closures were imminent.
The concept of Passport to Parks is simple – create a steady stream of funding for the parks by collecting $5/year through registration of motor vehicles, and in return, allow all Connecticut residents to enter the parks without having to pay an entry fee. The parks would get adequate, predictable funding that is fairly collected from every Connecticut resident with a vehicle. And for residents who visit parks, the break on entry fees would be more than it cost for just one visit in 2017.
As longtime advocates for the Passport, we at CFPA understood that there would probably come a time when the public would need to take action to defend it from raids. It’s just a little surprising that it’s happening so soon — especially given both the newness of the Passport and the demonstrated success of the program.
In its first season in 2018, the parks were safer and better cared for than they had been in years. All of the state’s campgrounds, including four that had been closed due to fiscal constraints, were reopened. Regular hours in all of the state parks, including those where services had been reduced, were restored. And after a years of budget cutbacks, critical seasonal staff including lifeguards and park maintainers were restored to reasonable levels.
The best news, park attendance was up by 10 percent, with more than nine million people visiting in 2018, generating millions more in economic activity in cities and towns across the state.
Because Passport funds are carried over from one calendar year to the next, the new funding has also made preparation for the 2019 summer season possible. Park managers have had the ability to plan ahead and commit to hiring seasonal workers earlier than in previous years to ensure the parks were appropriately maintained throughout the spring and fall seasons.
For example, because of the Passport funding, the state has been able to hire lifeguards for public swimming spaces before some of the best applicants have committed to other jobs.
Passport to Parks benefits everyone in Connecticut. The parks are better maintained and safer, visitors have more affordable access, and with more people visiting state parks tourism dollars are flowing.
The program is working as it should. Please, don’t raid the funds. It will only hurt all of us in the long term.
Eric Hammerling is Executive Director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association.
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