The budget proposal, co-authored by Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) would reallocate up to $41 million to cover a $22 million shortfall in the state Parks and Recreation Department's budget for the current and next fiscal years and provide reliable funding for several years to come.
The proposal would tap $10 million annually for five years from a clean-water revolving loan fund and from a $500 million reserve for motor-vehicle license-fee revenues, and up to $21 million every year in perpetuity from a fund earmarked for trail and off-highway-vehicle purposes.
State parks are in financial trouble in part because they receive only about 20 percent of what they need annually for road maintenance, the senators said in a statement. Twenty of the parks also have deferred maintenance needs of $1.3 billion for water, wastewater and septic systems.
But cutting back on operating funds is not the answer, Simitian said in a May 8 teleconference with Evans. The proposal to close 70 parks was "fundamentally ill-conceived, penny-wise and pound-foolish, (and) irreversible," he said.
A closed park has higher risks for criminal activity, wildfire and possible lawsuits over injuries.
"It's a false economy," he said.
Parks also generate important revenue for local businesses. Of the 70 parks, 20 are located in Evans' North Coast district, which includes Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties. Two nearby parks made the shutdown list: Portola Redwoods State Park in La Honda and Castle Rock State Park just west of Saratoga in Santa Clara County.
"The state has never closed a state park, not even in the Great Depression," Evans said. In fact, she said, during the Depression the state opened Anza Borrego Desert State Park in eastern San Diego County.
Exactly which parks would still close under the Simitian plan has not been determined and is a matter for the Parks Department. Factors include historical significance, visitor count, the net savings that would result from closing a park and the level of difficulty in keeping visitors out, according to an online summary.
The number of visitors statewide has been consistent in recent years, and during hard economic times, parks are important as a low-cost way to get away and relax, Evans said.
Eighteen of the listed parks have collaborative arrangements in place with federal agencies or nonprofits that would keep them open, eight more are in negotiations for such arrangements, Evans said.
The proposal aims to increase support and involvement by nonprofits, spearheaded by the California State Parks Foundation and community partners. It would also allow parks to become more entrepreneurial and give more flexibility when it comes to personnel, according to a summary of the "Sustainable Parks Proposal."
To reach the governor's desk for signature, the proposal will need simple majorities in the Senate and the Assembly, Simitian said. Asked if he anticipated opposition, he said it was too early to tell but that "we've tried very hard" to design a proposal that avoids political confrontations.
California is known for its parks and the idea of closing 70 of them, "I think a lot of people find incomprehensible," he said.
"We are using existing revenues in a relatively modest way to avoid the cuts," he added. "Our goal is to get past the year-to-year crisis in management of state parks. ... I am cautiously optimistic."