Future of State Parks at stake with Amendment 2

Nov 7, 2016

Voters in Alabama and the rest of the country head to the polls tomorrow to help determine the next President of the United States.  But that won’t be the only issue citizens in the Yellowhammer State have on the ballot.  APR’s MacKenzie Bates has more on the issue known as “Amendment 2”…

Alabama’s State Parks, like many services in the state in recent years have seen its fair share of funding cuts.  Over the past five years, more than $30 million from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources budget has been slashed.

“Budget woes in Alabama have caused some of our park funds to be transferred to other public programs.”

That’s Greg Lien.  He’s the Director of the Alabama State Parks Division.

“And the circumstances associated with that have created a great deal of uncertainty in terms of our annual operations plans,” Lien says.  “How we attend to the maintenance of the state parks facilities that uncertainty has made it almost impossible for us to be able to plan from one year to another.”

That reduction in costs prompted State Senator Clay Scofield to take action.  He co-sponsored a bill to help keep money inside the coffers of the state parks.

“So with this amendment,   if we ensure that, that money can stay within the parks,” Scofield says.  “The parks can offer better services better amenities, better attractions that can draw even more people to our state.”

Amendment 2, states it will prohibit any dollars from the State Parks Fund for being used for something else. In other words, no dollars from the Parks Revolving Fund or any fund receiving revenues currently deposited in the State Parks Fund or the Parks Revolving Fund, and any monies currently designated pursuant to statute for the use of the state parks system from being transferred for another purpose other than the support, upkeep, and maintenance of the state parks system.”

Lien says the parks rely on tourists.

“Most of our money comes from the customer’s coming in to the parks and using the parks and if we can’t hang on to that money, it’s almost impossible for us to be able to serve the public and be good partners,” Lien says.

Senator Scofield says the parks have a little something for everyone.

“We’ve had great successes with zip lines at Lake Guntersville State Park,” Scofield says.  “Boating activities at Oak Mountain State Park.  This is a really good deal because the state does not have to put forth the upfront costs.  Doesn’t have to assume the liability but then gets a percentage of the revenues off that.”

A recent study from the University of Alabama says state parks have a 375 million dollar economic impact on the state.  By keeping the money intact, Scofield calls that a terrific return on their investment.

“Roughly half the visitors to Alabama State Parks are out of state,” Scofield says.  “That’s new money that’s infused to our economy.  This is a great way to increase revenues for the state of Alabama both in education and on the general fund side not have to raise a dime’s worth of taxes.”

If voters approve the measure, revenues generated at state parks would be much more likely to be used for maintaining state parks. And that sounds fine with Lien.

“We can begin to make long term plans we can begin to partner with the local governments that surround us and the recreational partners that go out and use the parks and from that, we believe the state park system will once begin to prosper,” Lien says.

But some opponents of the Amendment say if approved, it will lead to Privatization of the State Parks.  Charles Grimsley is a former commissioner of Conservation and Natural Resources in Alabama.  He recently said in an op-ed piece in a state newspaper that this Amendment is a “Trojan Horse.”  He cites the contract that the state made with Hilton about building a luxury hotel at Gulf State Park.  That the companies can charge whatever they wanted and price out people coming to that and other parks.

“That simply is not true at all.” 

Clay Scofield.

“And frankly I would not allow that to go through.  I definitely wouldn’t allow it to become an amendment if it were going to lead to privatization of the parks.  What it does, is essentially levels the playing field to allow the parks to enter in to a concession.”

There is one stipulation regarding Amendment 2 if it passes.  It places a cap on how much revenue the state parks can make.  Lawmakers cannot touch money the parks make unless it exceeds 50 million dollars a year.  Transfers would be allowed if that plateau is met.  It would give lawmakers the flexibility to divert funds if the state parks ever bring in large amounts of cash.

Lien does not think it will come to that.

“Presently, we earn about 32 million dollars of guest revenue coming in to the parks system,” Lien says.  So we’d have to see an 18 million dollar increase to approach that threshold and we just don’t believe that’s a concern.”

Both Scofield and Lien are optimistic voters will swing yes to protect the funding for state parks.

“With this amendment,   if we ensure that, that money can stay within the parks,” Scofield says.  “The parks can offer better services better amenities, better attractions that can draw even more people to our state.”

“We are optimistic that the public is familiar enough with the plight that we’ve been facing over the last five years and they recognize that this is a solution we’ve been working on and it’s the best solution for the parks system,” Lien says.  “Again, our core problem has been the loss of our funds and the inability to plan.  And yes vote on amendment solves that problem.”

And Lien says a yes vote on Amendment 2, solves many of those problems.