That $5 isn’t for your car tabs

OLYMPIA — Car owners this week are getting the squeeze put on for a $5 donation for state parks.

They can say no — though the state hopes many won’t once they understand why the money is needed.

Those with vehicle registrations expiring in September will see the five bucks on renewal notices arriving this week, making them the state’s first to decide whether to pay in or opt out by subtracting the amount from the final total.

“We’re very hopeful. We’ve gotten lots of expressions of support for this program from the public,” said Virginia Painter, spokeswoman for the state Parks and Recreation Commission.

This revenue-raising effort emerged as the Legislature pared money from every state agency in order to close a $9 billion gap in the budget through mid-2011.

Up to a third of the state’s 121 parks faced closure or sell-off to offset the funding cuts envisioned for the agency by lawmakers. One facility did change hands when the state gave Wenberg Park to Snohomish County.

To avert closures, Democratic lawmakers created this program in which vehicle owners must check a box to avoid paying the donation. Until now, motorists would check a box if they wanted to voluntarily add a sum of money for state parks with their renewal payment.

Lawmakers envision this so-called opt-out program will raise $26.5 million for day-to-day park operations through mid-2011, roughly half the amount cut from the agency’s budget.

For the opt-in program, the state previously raised about $700,000 in its first full year.

From its inception, most Republican lawmakers and anti-tax activists such as Mukilteo’s Tim Eyman opposed the altered approach, with Eyman initially calling it a “sneaky and underhanded” way to extract money from taxpayers.

“With this one they’re being very clever by half. Blind people, disabled people and stupid people will be the only ones paying it by not knowing to check the box,” he said at the time. “This would be an unfair business practice if the private sector was doing it.”

Opponents pressed hard for redesigning the billing notice to make sure it is clear the donation remains voluntary.

Licensing and parks officials worked through dozens of versions and feel the final product won’t be viewed as misleading or a scam.

Still, car owners need to read the paperwork from the state Department of Licensing carefully.

The state parks fee is described and listed in three different places on the renewal forms mailed this week.

The $5 donation is included in the final total where it can look like a mandatory fee. One can opt out of paying by checking a box and subtracting the $5 from the amount to be sent in.

“We’ve worked really hard to make it clear and serve the intent of the law to keep parks open,” Painter said.

Those who pay and then want their money back can get a refund with a form posted on the parks department Web site.

“This is a choice people have. We know there will be some people who mistakenly donate.” Painter said.

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