By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
In April, the Governor’s office threatened to close up to 15 of Alabama’s 22 state parks unless the legislature gave more money to the State General Fund (SGF). It took 3 budgets and two Special Sessions, but eventually the legislature relented and agreed to give ~$156 million to the long troubled SGF.
Alabama Medicaid, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Department of Corrections, Pardons and Paroles, the Alabama Department of Mental Health, the Department of Human Resources, and the Court system were all fully funded in the budget that was passed by the legislature last week. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (like most State agencies) was cut from 2015 levels. DCN&R has endured a series of budget cuts and transfers from its funding to the troubled general fund. Again $3 million in money generated by the parks has been transferred to the SGF and the percentage of the $1.72 billion SGF spent on prisons and the state’s Medicaid program is at an all time high. The Bentley Administration is now preparing budgets based on the appropriations in the fiscal year budget which goes into effect on October 1. Closing some state parks has been mentioned as a very real possibility.
According to the group Alabama State Park Partners, “The peak season for the State Park system is coming to an end. For the first time in over a decade all park facilities are fully operational, which helped the parks to generate $3 million in revenue this summer. This money will be important for the parks to use during the slow season. The budget that has been proposed transfers all of the $3 million from the parks account into the general fund. Just like a business, if parks are hit with a transfer that exceeds their cash balance the parks will be unable to cover payroll or pay bills. Like all businesses, when that happens, parks will be forced close.”
State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) said in a statement, “The Bentley administration got a budget and three of their five proposed taxes. Yet, they are continuing to threaten to close state parks. Those parks generate 90% of their own revenues internally with fees and sales. Meanwhile, there are still no threats to cut the governor’s aircraft fleet, the huge salaries and overtime of the governor’s entourage, the overhead of operating two governor’s mansions where no one lives, $250,000 a year to give away proclamations like national possum day, nor any other cuts to perks and politicos.”
Zeigler said, “I can show them exactly where they can cut, but the insiders will not like cutting themselves.” Zeigler’s own budget was slashed by 25 percent by the legislature.
In a recent appearance in Moody, State Senator Jim McClendon (R-Springville) said that despite the budget deal some State parks could still close.
State Senator McClendon said that a number of State parks were started by counties and cities. They lost money on them so they turned them over to the State. Some of those smaller parks may be going back.
According to original reporting by the Alabama Media Group’s Paul Gattis, an announcement about State Parks closing could come by the end of the week. The legislature however stipulated that only $one million can come from state parks funding. The other $two million of the money has to be absorbed by the rest of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The parks generate $29.4 million a year in direct revenues; but cost $37 million a year to operate and has 564 employees. Over the last five years the legislature has transferred over $30 million from the DC&NR budget to the SGF, including the $3 million in the FY 2016 budget. The parks receive only $7.6 million in tax money.
State Senator Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) had proposed a plan to divert funds from the Alabama Trust Fund that currently go to the controversial Forever Wild Program to buy more state lands and use that money to permanently fund the Alabama State Parks. That plan however was rejected in a House committee during the first Special Session.