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State Parks Crumbling Amid Recession

Chris Blank of the AP writes about maintenance delays at state parks due to lack of funds:

At state parks across the nation, this is the toll of the deepening budget crisis and years of financial neglect: crumbling roads, faltering roofs, deteriorating restrooms.

Electrical and sewer systems are beginning to give out, too, as are scores of park buildings, some of them built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. In a few places, aging bridges have been detoured and tunnels blocked off because of falling debris.

The tough economy has made money scarcer for administrators at some of the country’s most treasured public spaces who have been forced to postpone maintenance and construction projects, creating a huge backlog of unfinished work that would cost billions of dollars to complete.

This is the necessary by-product of budget-slashing in the states. There’s no way to cut budgets to the degree needed, because of plummeting revenue during the Great Recession, without throwing state services into decay. Not only does this end up reducing jobs, as the maintenance workers get laid off, but it degrades the quality of state parks, which people adore and find crucial to their quality of life.

It’s very hard to counteract this. In California this year, there was an initiative on the ballot that would have raised the vehicle license fee a trivial amount – I believe $18 a year – to pay for operation of the state parks. State residents would even get something for that $18 – free access to the state parks for life for all vehicles with a California license plate. State parks in California are pretty beloved, and prior to the vote, most polls showed this passing. And yet it lost, and lost quite badly, 43-57. But I’m sure many of those 57% who would find it repressive to shell out 18 bucks a year will also be the ones grumbling about the dour quality of the bathrooms and roads in the state parks.

It’s a relatively trivial amount – $7 billion dollars – that would be needed to completely update the backlogged projects at state parks. A federal beautification project could put thousands of people to work, fix up spaces that everyone can use and enjoy, boost the economy and take a strain off of state budgets. But fat chance of that happening.

More generally, there needs to be some sort of way for states to maintain their efforts during budget crises, rather than engage in counter-productive budget-cutting or tax-increasing during a recession, which usually cuts against fiscal policy at the federal level. Some kind of debt swap or automatic stabilizer for the states, who are experiencing budget problems because of the national economy and not necessarily anything they did, would be desirable. Throughout the past two years, state cutbacks derailed stimulus measures. It’s time for that to stop, and a rethinking of the relationship between states and the federal government during recessions is needed.

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David Dayen

David Dayen