Tuesday, March 24, 2015

State Park User Fees

This past weekend, I purchased an annual vehicle sticker that grants me access to all of the state parks in Wisconsin. Thinking back to our class, I decided to do a little bit of research regarding the way that Minnesota and Wisconsin fund their state parks.

Governor Dayton has recently proposed raising the daily vehicle admission fee by $1 to $6, and to raise the annual vehicle fee by $5 to $30. If approved, the change would raise an estimated additional $2.3 million over the next two years. This would be the first increase since 2003. The annual operating budget for Minnesota’s state parks is currently about $34.6 million, and about one third of this budget comes from park user fees, such as the vehicle admission stickers and camping fees. The remaining operating costs are covered by state tax dollars. Dayton has also proposed increases from the general fund, which, when combined with the increase in vehicle admission fees, will generate an additional $4.6 million and $4.9 million in fiscal years 2016 and 2017 for the state’s park system. This is still short of the needed operations funding, but would narrow the gap from the current appropriation.

Meanwhile, Governor Walker has recently proposed making Wisconsin’s state parks self-sufficient, eliminating all state tax revenue and instead funding the system solely through entrance and campsite fees. Cuts in state tax revenue of $4.6 million, roughly 28 percent of the system’s operating budget, would be made up for by raising campsite fees by $2 and raising vehicle admission stickers by $3 to $28. The idea of selling the naming rights of the state’s parks has also been considered as a possible revenue source. Wisconsin’s parks would also have to rely more on volunteers and cut back on services. Unlike Dayton’s proposal, which has generally received bipartisan support, Walker’s recommendation has been met with fierce criticism.

I came across numerous different numbers regarding the number of parks, acres, miles of trails, annual visitors, and estimated economic impact in each state. Generally speaking, Minnesota has a larger park system yet has fewer annual visitors than Wisconsin, making it perhaps more feasible for Wisconsin to rely more on user fees. The economic and cultural impact in both states is tremendous, as visitors spend money in communities nearby the parks (in the form of food, fuel, gasoline, supplies, etc.) and value the chance to enjoy the great outdoors through a variety of activities.

It should be noted that Illinois does not charge user fees at all, operating their state parks completely through state funding.  Wisconsin’s governor is proposing the exact opposite, while Minnesota is somewhat in the middle between the two extremes. What do you think is best?

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