|Legislature needs to fully fund state park system|
By Russ Pankonin, The Imperial Republican Co-Publisher
Officials inside the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission want to hope for the best but are preparing for the worst when it comes to the level of funding the Nebraska Legislature will grant them in the new budget.
Thanks to our newspaper friends Jason and Amy Frederick of the Benkelman Post, we got wind of a proposal that would reduce services at Enders, Swanson and Rock Creek State Recreation Areas.
Upon further follow-up this week, we found that services will indeed be reduced at these parks and many others around the state IF the Legislature does not fully fund Game & Parks’ budget request.
The most disappointing aspect of the whole situation comes in the fact that local parks superintendents were not even aware of the potential cuts until last week. In addition, the public is just beginning to learn about it, with budget discussions in the Legislature just weeks off.
Game & Parks realizes the value of the economic impact that lakes and state parks make on local economies and the state as a whole.
The key to this point is to make legislators aware of the same thing.
If Game & Parks is forced to put their plan into action, over time, the reduction in services will create a stigma on local and area lakes like Enders and Swanson.
That will result in less visits, which in turn hits the local tourism economy even more down the road.
It’s easy to point the finger at Game & Parks for this action, but in reality, they are only playing out the hand they were dealt.
Users fees, such as park permits, camping fees, etc, account for 75 percent of Game & Parks’ revenue. The remainder comes in general funds doled out by the Legislature.
Game & Parks asked the Legislature this year for authority to increase the cost of park permits from $20 to $25. Nebraska’s $20 fee is the lowest in the nation of states who charge permit fees. Even at $25 it would still be the second lowest.
Unfortunately, the Legislature killed the bill, leaving Game & Parks with no choice but to begin preparing for the worst.
However, if the Legislature isn’t willing to stand behind its park system with increased user fees, then they need to step up to the plate and fully fund Game & Parks’ budget request.
Our local senator, Mark Christensen, favored the higher fees, because he knew who would pay the price if there’s not enough money to go around.
He’s already on board so let him know you support his efforts. But what we really need to do now throughout the state is to raise awareness of the price we will pay down the road if Game & Parks isn’t fully funded.
Our Legislature needs to make that investment for the good of all Nebraskans, because parks (and towns) in eastern Nebraska are going to be affected as well.
In 2002-2003, the Legislature cut Game & Parks’ budget by 17 percent, a cut that they absorbed. Since then, the Legislature has continued to chop away on the budget—so much so that it’s gotten to a point where the ongoing operation of Game & Parks may not be as we know it today.
Of the 160 possible positions inside Game & Parks, 30 remain vacant because they can’t afford to fill them. Maintenance expenditures have also been cut. That can only happen so long before deferred maintenance takes its toll on facilities.
Possible reduction in services has resulted from continual cuts to our parks system. If the Legislature doesn’t want to step up to the plate and adequately fund the agency, then at least give Game & Parks some other funding options, such as increased park permit fees. That way, they can control their own destiny instead of relying on 49 legislators, all with political agendas of their own.