Parks Bill Shows Bipartisanship Can Happen

Saturday, 4 Aug 2012, 2:05:00 AM

Tom Elias

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

Not even the revelation that dishonest state parks officials hid $54 million in reserve funds from budget writers and the public can dim the wider import of a park-rescue bill now working its way through the Legislature.

This bill demonstrates that even before a possible few moderate politicians arrive in Sacramento after November’s runoff election, there are signs bipartisanship can sometimes occur there after all.

It simply takes an impeccable cause favored by almost everyone in California.

There is no better example of such a cause than state parks, 70 of which were scheduled for closure to the public on July 1 under last year’s budget (two actually did shut down, and that was before the $54 million turned up, but many more reduced services and hours of operation).

Nobody wanted to shutter any state parks, which range from historic homes to large swaths of wild land. But Gov. Jerry Brown singled out park units that produce the least revenue to sustain themselves and the Legislature went along with the closures.

Most of those park units did not close as scheduled this summer, largely because of novel partnerships between park managers and nearby cities, foundations, local business groups whose livelihood depends in part on the parks, and private donors, some of whom remain anonymous.

Most of these arrangements were made without much guidance from government.

Wouldn’t it be nice, mused some parks advocates, if deals like the ones that assured keeping some parks open could be available to all?

Picking up on that idea has created a rare opportunity for bipartisanship. Now making its way through the Legislature, a proposed law would allow taxpayers to deduct amounts paid for state park passes from their state income taxes and for the first time would offer state park commemorative license plates for sale. All funds raised via these innovations would have to be used for park maintenance and operation – everything from clearing trails to cleaning out pit toilets. There’s no reason why the hidden surplus should stop this.

The bill was originally the idea of Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman of Marin County, now a congressional candidate. It was quickly co-authored by Republican Assembly members Dan Logue of Chico and Diane Harkey, who represents much of south Orange County and a bit of north San Diego County.

It would be difficult to find politicians who disagree on more items than Logue and Huffman. Republicans have sometimes reviled Huffman as being “in the pocket” of public employee labor unions, while Logue generally opposes anything those unions like. Harkey, meanwhile, is best known as a ferocious opponent of high speed rail and any new taxes.

Yet, parks have driven these normally divergent politicos together for awhile. By state budget standards, there’s little money at stake here, which surely makes their association easier and less likely to draw party ire down on any of them.

Their bill would not just give parks a bit of cash, but also demands that state park executives be more transparent with their closure proceedings and offer managers of parks on the chopping block help in finding alternative financing. State officials would have to disclose their reasons for choosing any park for closure, something they didn’t do last year, when the list of 70 rejects (out of 279 parks in the system) was published as a simple fiat.

The measure would limit park closures over the next four years to no more than 25 units, closures that should never happen now that the secret funds have been revealed. It would also call for parks that generate extra money (read: beach parks in the Los Angeles area, which make millions from their large parking lots) to share revenue with less lucrative, more remote parks.

These items seem pretty obvious, things that should have been standard procedure all along.

The remaining question is whether further bipartisanship can happen on other items, now that this precedent has been set. It’s true that state parks offer something to almost everyone from environmentalists to the off-road-vehicle enthusiasts whose noisy machines often annoy nature lovers. They’re used by motor home owners and by backpackers with nothing more than sleeping bags. How many other state functions boast such a broad base of support?

Of course, no politician wants to cut public school budgets because of the wide range of complaints when that happens. But what about in-home health care or Healthy Families, two programs Brown cut over Democratic protests, with no resistance from Republicans like Logue and Harkey?

Hope for constructive compromise depends on the parties finding more common ground, as they have on parks. It’s just possible the potential arrival of at least a few moderates can help that along.

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