The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

April 7, 2013

State parks' funding base has eroded


Associated Press

Montgomery Advertiser on state park system funding erosion:

Within the memory of most of our people, Alabama had a system of state parks that was one of the best in the country. It was one of the things Alabama had done right.

The state had wisely made an investment in places that were particularly scenic or had historic significance or offered recreational opportunities. Some of the parks had lodging or other amenities that were affordable for most families. It was an investment — modest in scale compared to many other state expenditures — in quality of life.

Sadly, the mindset that led to the creation of the parks system has gradually given way to a strict dollars-and-cents point of view that fails to recognize the less easily measured — but no less real — benefits of a healthy, well maintained parks system. That change, coupled with aging infrastructure, damage from hurricanes and tornadoes, and general neglect, has pushed the parks system into a most difficult position.

Now the system is preparing to reduce hours of operation and may lay off some employees. As the Advertiser’s Brian Lyman reported, the system “has been pushed beyond its means,” in the words of Parks Director Gregory Lein.

“We will no longer be able to operate our parks system as we have over the last four decades,” Lein wrote in a letter issued last week.

The system’s funding base has eroded. The Department of Conservation once got about $6 million a year from the state’s use tax, and $2.5 million-$3 million from the cigarette tax, but that revenue now goes to the General Fund.

In a telling example, the chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee observed that the cuts to Conservation have been smaller than those suffered by some other General Fund agencies. That is true in percentage terms, but that also represents a very shallow understanding because it assumes that all cuts are the same and have the same impact, regardless of the agency. That is demonstrably untrue.

Alabama has some serious fiscal challenges; no one disputes that. At the same time, however, it is important that the state not make unsound short-term decisions with harmful long-term implications, all stemming from a mindset that understands the price of everything and the value of nothing.