Apr 6, 2009

State Parks Passport will increase funding and attendance at state parks

LANSING -- Michigan’s beautiful and numerous State Parks could get a shot in the arm under pending legislation that will increase funding and attendance.

At a joint meeting of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee and the House Great Lakes and Environmental Committee last week, the committees took testimony on the four-bill bipartisan, bicameral package of bills: Senate Bills 388-389 and House Bills 4677-4678.

The bills would cut the annual entrance fee in half from $24 to just $10, and it would allow residents to purchase a recreation passport at the Secretary of State’s office when you renew your vehicle registration. It is modeled after the program in Montana, and it operates on the honor system.

The bills are the result of planning by the Citizens Advisory Committee of Michigan State Parks. The state parks are a huge draw for tourism with a park no father than an hour‘s drive away for any Michigan resident, but they have not received general fund money for the past five years.

“The bills before this committee reflects years of frustration by legislators, professionals and educators who have wrestled with the challenge of funding state parks,” said Rev. Hurley J. Coleman, Jr., a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee. “The ebb and flow of economics has caused these important facilities and programs to react, diminishing the consistency of services.”

Supporters of parks, recreation and environmental groups came out in force to support the bills. Proponents say it will increase both funding and attendance. The cashiers who man the entrance booths will be freed up to perform other services in the park. Parks near border areas will still man the familiar entrance booths, and the entrance fees for out-of-state visitors will be the same.

Dennis Muchmore, the executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs - the largest statewide conservation organization in the nation, with nearly 100,000 members and more than 500 affiliated clubs - testified in favor of the bills, saying state parks are a key economic engine that generates $3.5 billion annually in spending by sportsman.

“The legislative proposal brought forth today is refreshing example of bicameral and bipartisan cooperation to solve our state’s many challenging problems,” he said. “But perhaps more importantly, it is also the calculated work-product of Michigan citizens through the Citizen’s Committee for Michigan State Parks: sportsman, academics, state and park officials, local governments and other citizen’s resource stewards.”

The Michigan Recreation and Park Association (MRPA), a non-profit association with over 2,000 members representing the public and private sectors of the recreation and park profession, came out strongly in favor of the bills. Darrin Duistermars, the president of the MRPA board, said the proposal will lower the cost of attendance and increase attendance.

“We strongly support the vision to establish a sustainable source of funding for state parks, boating facilities, forests, campgrounds and recreation areas,” he said. “Assessing a general motor vehicle registration fee in exchange for eliminating daily and annual park entry and boating fees will make access to state recreation resources more affordable for Michigan residents and provide the resources required to address crumbling infrastructure, maintenance and operational needs.”

However, there is some opposition out there. The Michigan Association of County Road Commissions and the Michigan Municipal League oppose it. They claim money from vehicle registration should only go to roads, and it is unconstitutional because it is a tax that should go to roads.

But proponents say the SOS routinely collects voluntary fees from specialty license plates for fundraising.

Even though the bills provide a half percent of the funding to the SOS office to administer the program, they are against it. They claim it may free up clerks at the state parks, but it will burden their lobby employees answering state park questions and increase the wait time in the branch offices.

The SOS also claims it is a slippery slope to using vehicle registering for other non-vehicle uses. It also claims it is unconstitutional because the funding for specialty license plates you must opt in, but for the park passes you must opt out.

This is the first of at least one more committee hearing just to take testimony, and the goal is to vote the bills out of committee by May.

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