Task force may revive 2 unpopular taxes to fund state parks

OLYMPIA — A task force appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee wants to revive two unpopular taxes to help finance the state’s park system and promote its outdoor recreation industry.

The panel wants to bring back the sales tax on bottled water and the excise tax on motor homes and travel trailers to generate money to keep parks open.

Some dollars also would fund new initiatives in the Department of Commerce to put outdoor recreation on equal footing with aerospace, maritime and other major business sectors of the state’s economy.

Providing opportunities to recreate outdoors should be treated as an essential government service and the $22.5 billion-a-year industry respected as an “economic powerhouse,” concludes the final report of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

“Outdoor recreation is not just fun and games,” states the report.

Inslee applauded the effort, though he did not endorse any specific ideas. Some could become part of his 2015-17 budget proposal due out in December.

“The recommendations from the task force are well thought out and practical” Inslee said in a statement Tuesday.

“I look forward to working with the Legislature to see if we can begin to put the recommendations in place,” Inslee said. “If we can, we’ll have healthier families and bring more people to Washington to enjoy our great outdoors and support our outdoor businesses.”

As an industry, outdoor recreation is overshadowed in a state dominated by aerospace, technology and agriculture.

Inslee directed the task force to come up with ideas for marketing the industry to tourists and stabilizing state park funding. He also sought suggestions for getting children to spend more time outdoors as part of his broader goal to stem the spread of childhood obesity.

The panel began work in April. It held five public meetings and received 3,000 comments through an online site.

The group proposes creating a position in the Department of Commerce to focus on the needs of the outdoor recreation industry, just as the state does for aerospace and other industries. And a “coordinating council” should be set up to improve access to local, state and federal lands. Those could cost $750,000-a-year, the report estimates.

The 29-member panel also suggests outdoor recreation be included in the core curriculum in public schools.

Somewhat buried in the report are the ideas on new revenue, which are certain to encounter political opposition.

The task force concluded those using public lands are required to cover too much of the cost of financing state parks and managing recreational programs and facilities run by the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The report offers a way to steer $100 million toward those activities in the next two-year budget.

Charging sales tax on bottled water would net an estimated $46.5 million, according to the panel’s calculations.

Lawmakers did approve such a tax in 2010 only to see it repealed by voters later that year.

The panel wants to impose a 0.5 percent excise tax on the roughly 177,000 motor homes and travel trailers owned in the state. This would bring in a projected $19.3 million in the next biennium.

Washington used to levy an excise tax on motor homes and travel trailers but stopped when voters passed Initiative 695 in 2000.

The task force also wants to earmark collections from the watercraft excise tax to the parks and recreation programs. Right now those dollars, which in the next budget would be about $34.8 million, go in the general fund to pay for schools, health care, social services and other government operations.

As for the Discover Pass, task force members said changes are needed “so it is no longer a barrier to some would-be enthusiasts.” But they found so much discontent with it from residents that they also recommended it be replaced. The program is projected to earn close to $40 million in the next budget cycle.

Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said Friday he knows state parks face financial challenges but isn’t “too keen” on imposing new taxes to meet them.

“We’ve made substantial efforts to make our state parks stronger,” he said, citing new laws allowing the agency to sell ads on its website and partner with private companies in different activities.

Creating a coordinating council and a new high-level post in the Department of Commerce struck him as duplicating the roles of existing state boards and employees.

“I need to better understand what they have in mind,” he said. “We don’t want to re-invent the wheel.”

Pearson also said he wished the report had more ideas on preventing the federal government from closing off access to its lands.

The Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the report early in the 2015 legislative session, he said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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