By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
As Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) has begun preparing for a second Special Session in which he is expected to once again attempt to convince Republican legislators to abandon their no new taxes pledges to voters and adopt the Governor’s unpopular tax increase plan.
Perhaps as part of that effort, the Alabama state park system has sent out emails to its supporters with an interesting poll question. The poll asks: “Your park system in Alabama annually experiences 4 to 5 million visitor occurrences, and benefits our state’s local and regional economies through a $375 million economic impact each year. In recent years, park customers have provided about 90 percent of the park system’s annual funding through visitor/user fees at the parks and park facilities, with the remaining 10 percent coming from the legislature in the form of Use Tax and Cigarette Tax earmarks for maintenance and basic program administration that are provided to State Parks by previously established laws.”
“Given the legislature’s most recent actions of intercepting or transferring these maintenance and administrative funds to other essential forms of government through the General Fund, do you believe that park customers should now have to bear 100 percent of the costs of operating and maintaining the State Park system?”
The choices were yes or no.
The Alabama Political Reporter answered the question six times on the same computer from the same email address and ISP calling into question how scientifically accurate any information from the web poll is. We answered it both ways and each time got the same thank you message for answering the poll. The poll was likely designed to simply elicit a response from State Park fans.
The Parks have been a political football this entire debate. At one point the administration threatened to start closing parks on May 1 (even though they were fully funded until September 30. That plan was ever implemented but the parks are being threatened again.
In their August newsletter the Parks encouraged supporters to join the Alabama State Parks Partners Coalition: “We encourage all of our supporters to continue expressing their opinions about state parks with their local communities and to share those opinions with their elected officials. In these uncertain times, the best way to show support is by visiting a state park and joining the Alabama State Parks Partners Coalition. The recent actions of the Legislature to involve the Forever Wild Program was stopped, but keeping our supporters up to date with the latest State Park news is important to us.”
The Governor is threatening to close 15 or more State parks unless the legislature gives him over $300 million in new taxes.
At a press conference at Joe Wheeler State Park on Tuesday Parks Director Greg Lein said, “The State parks would be devastated,” if the legislature balances the budget by cutting General Fund agencies like the State parks. “Last year, we celebrated our parks 75th anniversary. This year the legacy of the parks, the service we provide to the community and the guests that visit our parks are severely threatened.”
During the First Special Session, State Senator Clay Scofield (R-Arab) proposed funding the parks permanently by using money that is earmarked for Forever Wild to continue to buy more land (they already own nearly a quarter of a million acres). State Parks officials fought that legislation and it died in committee in the House.
State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) disagrees. The State Auditor said in a statement, “90 percent of the money to run our state parks comes from admission fees and sales. There is no reason to close them if the tax increases do not pass. This is an obvious political threat to pressure the legislature and the public to support the Bentley tax increases.”
Proponents of tax increases in the House are expected to drag the coming special session out in order to try to force the House Caucus to accept the Governor’s Draconian tax increases. If tax increases pass out of the House that will pressure the Senate to accept that budget.
Many Senators including Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City) and Paul Sanford (R-Huntsville) argue that the state has the money to pay for the SGF funds, they simply have to transfer the use tax ($240 million) from education to the General Fund. Gov. Bentley supports transferring the use taxes; but he wants to back fill that money in education by raising Alabamians income taxes by eliminating the FICA deduction.
The legislature is expected to start its second special session on the Tuesday after Labor Day.