Sustaining Alabama’s parks

Published 11:47 pm Thursday, February 25, 2016

At one point during last year’s ugly budget battles in the Alabama Legislature, it looked like the state’s park system would be axed. Gov. Robert Bentley rightly vetoed two draconian budgets that would have forced the closure of as many as 22 parks.

But the final budget passed in the second special session still did deep damage to the park system, which operates under the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

As the Montgomery Advertiser’s Brian Lyman reported, that department gets no General Fund money and raises most of its $146 million budget from self-generated revenues – such as entrance fees – and federal earmarks.

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Those revenues were too tempting for tax-averse conservatives in the Legislature to resist. They transferred $3 million out of the department’s coffers, with $1 million coming out of the parks’ service fees pot and $2 million from a maintenance fund.

That led the department to announce it would close five parks last October to handle the steep budget cuts.

Thankfully, since then some of the parks slated for closure have been granted a reprieve. Florala State Park was taken over by the city of Florala in October. Paul M. Grist in Selma reopened in December, operating under a lease agreement with Dallas County.

Now, however, another grim budget year faces state lawmakers. We fear they’ll once again target parks for more money grabs to bolster the anemic General Fund.

That’s why, though we are generally hesitant to advise cracking into the state constitution, we support a proposal being planned by state Sen. Clay Scofield to shield parks from further harm.

As reported, Scofield is preparing a constitutional amendment bill that, if approved by voters, would stop lawmakers from taking entrance fees and other funds from the state park system.

The idea is likely to draw support from a majority of Alabama voters, both Republicans and Democrats.

Not only are the parks vital to the preservation of Alabama’s natural resources and bounty, they are critical to the local economies of nearby communities. Park visitors and campers open their wallets at area grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations and retail outlets, helping sustain small businesses.

They provide educational opportunities to school children around the state and improve quality of life in ways that are attractive to companies looking to locate new facilities, bringing badly needed jobs to Alabama’s rural areas.

Scofield’s proposal would allow park system leaders to reliably plan ahead for maintenance expenses and keep enough staff on the payroll to handle day-to-day business.

It’s sad Alabama’s Republican-led Legislature hasn’t seen the intrinsic value in the state’s parks, but has instead chosen to treat them as low-hanging fruit.

Scofield’s proposed ballot amendment will restore budget sanity and sustainability to the park system. Lawmakers should pass it swiftly and let the voters speak their will.

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