So it’s come down to this: either vote to add an $18 annual fee to your car registration or we’ll close the State of California’s 278 Parks. This reminds me of that old National Lampoon magazine that ran with the cover art of a gun pointing at a dog and the headline: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog”.
Californians love their parks. The sprawling network of state parks cover 1.5 million acres and one-third of our coastline, preserving natural space, historical sites and offering residents a low-cost form of recreation. In recent years, the parks have suffered an ongoing succession of indignities, with 60 of them operating under severely curtailed hours and a $1.5 billion backlog of repairs waiting for better times that certainly don’t look they’re going to materialize anytime soon. With each annual budget crisis the threat of massive closures rears its ugly head, only to be beaten down with the legislative equivalent of bubble gum and bailing wire that keeps the parks teetering along, barely open.
With an estimated 80 million total visits to State parks annually, and a huge economic footprint—a recent study estimated that visitors spend an average of $57.63 in surrounding communities per visit—it’s no wonder that over four hundred organizations around the California have lined up in support of Proposition 21. Retired people, nurses, labor unions, chambers of commerce, city governments, park rangers, tree huggers and hunters have all lined up in support of the initiative. The campaign has attracted over $4 million in donations.
Lining up against Proposition 21 are the Alliance of Automobile Manufactures, the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity, and Howard Jarvis, godfather of California’s Proposition 13. Their arguments call the annual fee a “car tax” and whine about the state’s legislators wanting to avoid the “hard work of cutting spending so that there is plenty of money in the state’s basic general operating fund to support popular amenities such as the state parks.” They have raised a whopping $25,000.
Two of California’s big city dailies (LA Tines, San Francisco Chronicle) have come out in opposition to the initiative, not because they oppose funding for the parks, but because this is a piecemeal solution. And there is an element of truth to that claim. But getting to a solution that allows the legislature to fund both education and state parks requires revisiting “the third rail” of California politics, Proposition 13. You see, while Proposition 13—in the public’s mind—protects granny’s $50,000 shack down by the beach from being taxed for the $1 million it’s now worth, it also protected the real estate belonging to big corporations around the State. That’s why Plaza Bonita, for instance, pays less in annual property taxes that a quarter acre lot in Chula Vista. That’s why Chase Bank got a sweetheart deal (no reassessments) when it acquired all Wamu’s properties. And why Disney still pays the same taxes on its properties that it did thirty years ago.
So any politician wanting to address the State’s perpetual budget shortfalls by righting this huge loophole risks being tarred with the “you hate grannies” brush. And if there’s one thing Californians love more that their State parks, it’s their grannies.
Next to the Holy Grail of overtaxed grannies, juxtapose the contemporary mantra of “less taxes equals more jobs/companies are fleeing California because of high taxes” and you have a situation bound to scare the bejesus out of any elected official brave enough to even think about tax reform. Herein lays the dilemma of Proposition 21: vote to save the parks and you’re putting off the inevitable confrontations that are coming with the implosion of State government envisioned by Howard Jarvis. Vote against the parks and baby seals will die.
It’s your choice.