Lovers Leap State Park in New Milford. DOUG KERR / CREATIVE COMMONS

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.

Eric Hammerling

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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  1. Imagine where this state would be if we had the common sense to have properly funded pensions. If so raids like this would never occur.
    The underlying theme against tolls is the lack of trust of the legislature held by the public.

  2. Criminal behavior by leadership in Hartford. Shame on them for even contemplating taking money from the Passport to Parks funds. This is exactly why we can’t trust them to collect ANYTHING and spend it for what they intended….. it is a chronic illness and must be stopped!

  3. When a tax or a fee is put into place by the Legislature for a specific purpose, the funds collected must be used for that purpose.

    No sweeps or diversions of funds should occur unless the full Legislature votes to make it so.

      1. Hey, a person can dream, can’t they?

        I DO know better, but the point remains: Do not sell us taxpayers a ‘bill of goods’ and then reneg on it years down the road.

        The real problem is that most voters never consider stuff like this when they go to the polls.

    1. Yup. And the same people who control the Appropriations Committee also control both house of the legislature. And the Governor’s Office. So I would not be surprised if this raid/sweep/diversion succeeds.

  4. They just can’t keep their grubby hands off money that is dedicated to a specific purpose. Heaven forbid they should try to cut spending instead of siphoning money into the black hole that is the General Fund. It doesn’t matter what it is, they just want to take, take, and take some more. In years past, they “swept” the funds from vehicle registration surcharges that were supposed to be dedicated to animal population control, greenways, Save the Sound and other such worthy programs. Now it’s the Passport to Parks. But hey, if they keep taking funds from these special programs, they can claim that they’re not raising our taxes, right?

  5. For many years, my wife and I each purchased a State Park pass plus, when our kids lived at home, another for them. I think the last cost of the passes we bought were $65 each. We hardly ever used them during the actual ‘season,’ but quite frequently during the off-season.

    We bought these passes because the parks are a wonderful natural resource for CT. We also specifically contributed to a “Friends of…” group that does work for our most local Park, yet none of us could even remotely be considered ‘environmentalists.’

    The parks ‘lockbox’ was created to ensure a stable level of support and maintenance. Care of our natural resources is preached by politicians ad nauseum, and this program worked towards that goal. However, these politicians see no problem with ‘stealing’ those directed funds to spend on their own personal wish lists.

    This is not the only directed funds ‘theft,’ just the latest one. Lottery and casinos for education? Nope. Gas tax for roads? Nope. Car sales taxes for transportation ‘lockbox?’ Nope, the Gov took care of that one right away to create a ‘toll crisis.’ Heck, even the tobacco settlement haul saw almost no funds go towards what they were intended.

    Please make sure that your elected State politicians know that NONE of this is acceptable. Tell them you can no longer vote for them if this continues or you will hear ‘clean air, clean water, better schools, better roads and bridges, more money’ demands for as long as you remain in this State while we continue on the fast track towards financial meltdown.

  6. By stealing these funds from the parks budget, the Democrats are telling us we can’t afford parks because we must pay for pension deficits, the number 1 priority. . No ifs ands or buts. So just pay your $10 and stop complaining.

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