- Associated Press - Saturday, April 29, 2017

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - While there’s partisan wrangling over Connecticut’s next budget, many Democrats and Republicans appear united in supporting a proposal to create a dedicated funding stream for the state’s 109 state parks, victims of budget cutbacks in recent years.

Both a legislative spending bill, which failed to come up for a vote Tuesday because of the ongoing budget battle, and a Republican budget alternative included language creating a Passport to State Parks. It’s a concept similar to programs in Idaho, Kansas, Michigan and other states where park entrance or parking fees are linked to vehicle registration or license renewals.

Under the Connecticut proposal, a $10 charge every two years would be added to all passenger vehicle registrations, including motorcycles and campers. Currently, the passenger vehicle registration fee is $80. In exchange, registered Connecticut passenger vehicles would be allowed to park for free at all state parks. Out-of-state visitors would still have to pay a parking fee at certain parks.

“It’s the greatest deal in the world for Connecticut residents,” said Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., the Senate Democratic chairman of the General Assembly’s Environment Committee. The in-state parking fee at the state’s largest shoreline park, Hammonasset State Park in Madison, is currently $13 a day on weekends and holidays.

Kennedy proposed a similar measure in 2015, which would have created a check-off on vehicle registrations to make a charitable donation to state parks. But he said the idea fizzled amid concerns the state legislature could sweep the funds if needed. Kennedy has pushed for dedicating a reliable stream of revenue to the parks, including a fee on plastic bags, noting how Connecticut is one of three states that finances parks exclusively through the state’s main spending account.

He sees bipartisan support for the Passport to State Parks concept because taxpayers would be getting something in return for the increased fee.

“The door is open right now to expanding alternative revenue sources,” he said. “And that door has never been open before.”

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection included the Passport to Parks idea in a list of budget-saving ideas it submitted to Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy when he was crafting his budget proposal. While Malloy ultimately did not include it in his plan, the department is still interested in the concept, which would ultimately allow greater public access to state parks, Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen said.

But Whalen notes how the proposal included in the Appropriations Committee’s spending bill is projected to generate $14 million and it’s earmarked to cover state parks and other programs. The state spends roughly $18 million a year on its parks.

“It may not cover all of the things we would like it,” Whalen said.

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, has voiced concern about the spate of cutbacks at the parks. Currently, the parks plan to open with limited staff and services this season, due to the state’s budget woes.

While he prefers a higher surcharge on the vehicle registrations and an agreement allowing parks to keep the revenues they generate, such as from campground reservations, Hammerling is pleased a growing number of lawmakers appear interested in creating a dedicated revenue steam.

“Right now, the parks are 100 percent reliant on the general fund,” he said. “That means, whenever there are budget cuts, the parks unfortunately tend to take a hit at the very get-go. And over the last 10 years, the cuts have been coming again and again and again.”


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