Bills allow alternatives if California state parks are shuttered |

Bills allow alternatives if California state parks are shuttered

SACRAMENTO, Calif. and#8212;With budget cuts continuing to threaten California’s state parks, two bills up for consideration this week would open the door for local governments or private contractors to keep parks open if the state shuts them.

State Sen. Sam Blakeslee is supporting a bill to give counties and cities a chance to take over operations of a closed state park for one to five years.

A California State University study has pegged annual spending related to state park visits at an average of $6.9 billion a year, said Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo. Communities in his district, such as Morro Bay, rely on the economic boost from nearby parks.

His SB356 would require the state to give counties and cities a chance to take over operations of closed parks and encourage the use of local workers and volunteers.

While Blakeslee is looking to local governments, another bill would encourage working with the private sector to keep the gates open.

SB386 by state Sen. Tom Harman, R- Huntington Beach, would require the state to post a notice if it planned to close a park, list contact information for outside parties interested in taking over its operations and respond in writing to inquiries it received.

“Our goal is to keep the parks open,” said Eileen Ricker, spokeswoman for Harman.

The bill does not require the state to make deals for private operation, only consider them and respond, Ricker said.

“We’re hearing that people now will make these inquiries and never hear back,” she said.

Both proposals, Blakeslee said, have revived concerns among critics in conservation circles and public employee unions about whether Republicans seek to privatize state parks.

He said his bill concentrates on local government and volunteer involvement in part to allay fears about the profit motive.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to expand volunteerism,” he said.

Budget deficits have threatened California’s state parks for several years.

In 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut about $14 million, which would have forced about 100 of the state’s 279 parks, beaches and other attractions to close. A one-time budget move prevented the shutdown, but 60 parks were partially closed and 90 more were hit with service reductions.

That led supporters of the state parks to propose an $18 increase to the state’s vehicle license fee, dedicated to park operations. In exchange, vehicles with California license plates would have been given free access. But voters rejected Proposition 21 last November, leaving park funding in jeopardy.

The remaining state deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is $15.4 billion, but Democrats and Republicans are at odds over how to address it. Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget calls for $11 million in cuts to the state park system for the 2011-12 fiscal year. The administration says that would force partial or full closing of an unspecified number of parks.

SB356 and SB386 are scheduled for review Tuesday by the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.

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