Washington State is beginning to realize that “broke” actually means broke, as in, “out of money.” Governor Christine Gregoire is considering cost-saving steps, including being the first state in the country to cut state park funding to zero. Of course, the $94 million savings would be a drop in the bucket for a state that is $3 billion in the red, but at least it is a move in the right direction.
What this means—according to Don Hoch, the Director of Washington State Parks—is that the state parks actually need to begin running like businesses. Hoch said: “We’ve started marketing. We have to develop a new skill set that we’ve never had to develop before. We were never in the competition business.” Yeah, Don, we know. That’s why your state is $3 billion in the hole. No business on earth can run a deficit of $3 billion and remain in business. That loophole is uniquely reserved for government bureaucracies.
Notice that Hoch openly admits that they don’t even possess a business-minded skill set. He says they were “never in the competition business” before. Yet this didn’t prevent them from finding ways to spend $94 million a year. This is the government bureaucracy mindset in action. Budgets are approved with absolutely no concept of where the money will come from (other than higher taxes, of course). Thousands of employees are paid, equipment is purchased to keep an entire industry afloat that the public really doesn’t value. “Save the Earth” types will certainly be up at arms about losing their “free” state park privileges, but will they be upset enough to put their dollars where their indignation is? Probably not.
I would be the first to admit that I generally like the idea of state parks, but I also admit that I don’t use them very often. Would I be willing to pay more each time I visit, if I knew that my tax dollars weren’t being used to fund them? Yes. Would I use the state parks more often (therefore paying to use them more often) if there was a concentrated marketing and activity program in place that was designed to increase attendance and revenue? Probably. Part of the problem with state parks in the first place is that most people tend to forget about them for the very reason that they are on the government dole and get their funding regardless of their ability to sustain themselves. State parks need a reality check just like the rest of the bloated government bureaucracies attached to the tax money umbilical cord. Cutting spending is never fun or painless, but it is necessary nevertheless.
Labor costs for the Washington State Park system account for 85% of its annual budget. This is way out of whack for what a private business could sustain. This will need to change immediately if the Washington State Parks plan on making their system pay for itself. Paul Guppy of the Washington State Policy Center said: “State government is pretty bad at advertising the experience you can have at public parks, but a private company would have much more incentive to broaden their appeal to a wider public to encourage more people to come.” Indeed. In reality, the question should have been asked years ago why the state parks never were required to come up with ways to increase attendance and revenue.
But this is all “water under the state-funded bridge.” This new policy under consideration in Washington State should also be considered by the rest of the 49 states. And once the state parks are funded privately, they will have a model to show that it can, and must, be done to all the other government bureaucracies.