- Associated Press - Thursday, May 7, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Republicans on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee approved higher state park admission and camping fees Thursday, brushing aside protests from Democrats that the proposal amounts to a slap in the face of working people looking for affordable recreation.

Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget proposal calls for an end to funding state parks with tax dollars and making them self-sustaining through fees and corporate sponsorships. His spending plan called for raising annual entrance fees by $3 and park and state forest camping fees by $2.

The moves would bump annual admission from $25 to $28 for state residents and from $35 to $38 for out-of-staters. Resident camping fees would move from the current $12 or $15 per night based on a site’s popularity to $14 or $17. Out-of-staters’ nightly rates would go from $14 or $17 to $16 or $19.

Joint Finance Committee member Howard Marklein, a Republican senator from Spring Green, presented an alternative plan to the panel during a meeting Thursday. His proposal keeps the $3 annual park admission fee but raises daily admission fees by $1. He proposed raising camping fees to between $15 and $20 for residents and between $19 and $25 for nonresidents. The Department of Natural Resources secretary could raise or lower those rates by $5 above or below the ranges.

His plan also calls for raising the fee for electricity at camping sites from $5 to $10 and raising the price of annual trail passes from $20 to $25.

Marklein’s plan would generate about $5.6 million of revenue over the two-year budget compared with $2.6 million under Walker’s strategy.

He said the state should take advantage of the parks’ popularity and set fees according to market forces. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, an estimated 15.3 million people visit Wisconsin state parks and southern forests each year.

“I think it’s prudent from the standpoint of getting revenue into the parks,” Marklein said. “It’s a good package. It helps us get closer to full solvency for the parks.”

The committee voted 12-4 to replace Walker’s plan with Marklein’s. All four Democrats on the committee voted against the increases.

Rep. Chris Taylor of Madison ripped Walker for mismanaging the state’s finances to the point where the state can’t afford to spend tax money to sustain its parks.

“Because of your bad decisions and bad decisions by this governor, you are now proposing raising fees on Wisconsin families. That is absolutely the wrong way to go,” Taylor said. “It’s another slap in the face to the hard-working people of Wisconsin.”

Taylor argued fee revenue won’t generate nearly enough cash to run the parks. She pointed out that a fiscal bureau report found the parks’ decades-old infrastructure needs $285 million in repairs and upgrades.

“What kind of park system are we going to be talking about in 20 years? Tetanus State Park? Collapsed Cabin State Park?” Rep. Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh quipped.

“Oh, my, the hyperbole,” Sen. Tom Tiffany, a Republican from Hazelhurst, responded.

Taylor introduced a motion that would have barred the Department of Natural Resources from selling state park land or selling park naming rights to for-profit corporations.

“This motion makes it crystal clear … that we will never have a McPark or a McTrail,” Taylor said, playing off the McDonald’s brand name.

Rep. John Nygren, a Marinette Republican who serves as the committee’s co-chairman, noted that the names of a number of state parks are written in statute so they couldn’t be tweaked and it’s more likely that the DNR would look at selling signs to corporations that could be placed at trail heads or allowing corporations to run concession stands.

“This is blown out of proportion by Democrats on this committee,” he said.

The committee defeated the motion on a 12-4 party line vote.


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