Notes on SB 190 Hearing, Resources, Recreation and Development Committee, at LOB, April 9, 2013
Bill introduced by lead sponsor Senator Nancy Stiles, of NH Senate District 24, a district that includes much of the seacoast.
Stiles: “If we expect our parks to run on fees, we have to eliminate these groups allowed to use the parks for free.” Her first iteration of the bill proposed that veterans should get in free, and seniors pay half.
Senator Stiles is clearly a retired individual, and clearly one that is not eating cat food in her senior years.
The projected revenue for this bill is $300,000. There was no fiscal note attached to the bill.
Rep. Aguilar: Where did that estimate come from?
Stiles: The Parks Dept.
Rep. Webb: Was there ever a compromise discussed for low-income seniors, like means testing?
Philip Bryce, Director of NH Parks and Recreation Division:
Supports the bill, encourages legislature to examine the fee system. $300,000 is the cost of running 4-5 medium parks. It’s also the projected estimate for revenues generated by passing this bill.
Rep. Mullen: How many total visitors get charged park fees?
Bryce: 735,000 paid day entry fees last year. There were 96,000 comps, including 21,000 seniors. There were 1.2 million visitors altogether (day passes, camping, etc.)
Mullen: If you raised the entrance fee a dollar for everyone, wouldn’t that suffice?
Bryce: Yes, but we’re trying to keep our access fees down.
Rep. Beaulieu: What about some kind of raffle or giveaway for seniors who won’t be able to afford this?
Bryce: We haven’t dealt with the issue of inability to pay. We hope libraries and businesses will buy passes and loan them out to seniors.
Chandley (chair): Shouldn’t we think about looking at all the steps before we go ahead with this?
Bryce: No, we need this now. This should have been done in 1992. The self-funding model was passed in 1991, with a budget deficit already in existence.
Gottling: Would you have people collecting these fees?
Bryce: We would have to consider hiring staff in some parks, and use “iron rangers” in others. (The fee boxes)
Merrow: Would this apply to all the parks?
Merrow all hung up on the issues of Cannon Mtn. and the tramway, for some reason. I doubt if low-income seniors from Salem are driving up to Cannon for freeloading purposes.
Smith: This proposed pass seems almost too good to be true.
Rep. Wazlaw: Would the fee eliminate seniors from coming to the parks?
Bryce: We don’t know.
Aguilar: How successful are the sales of individual season’s passes?
Bryce: Will have to get you that information.
Webb: The self-funded model is not a statute. Shouldn’t you be charging more for park entry fees?
Bryce: Wants to collect data on out of state visits, thinking about charging out of state people more.
Webb: What about means testing?
Bryce: No way to do that. Still hoping for libraries and senior centers to pick up the tab for low income folks.
Mullen: When was the last time you changed the rates?
Bryce: Last year we increased the fees at high use parks; like lakefront parks where we have lifeguards, and increased the meter rates at Hampton. It raised $300,000 for the park system.
Holmes: If there were 96,000 comps and only 21,000 were seniors, if you eliminated the other comps, you’d generate over a million dollars.
Bryce: Not sure what the comps are – we have agreements with some towns and organizations for free park use.
Aguilar: Did it come up that all seniors are not poor?
Bryce: The sponsor is certainly one example.
Aguilar: Did you consider limiting senior access to parks to midweek?
Bryce: Thinks seniors visit parks on weekends with their families.
Jeff Gilbert from the State Parks Advisory Council – lives on seacoast, is a businessman, speaking on behalf of SPAC.
SPAC views this is a very good step forward. It’s leveling the playing field. Free access is a SUBSIDY! All of the other park users are subsidizing these seniors! Thinks entire fee structure needs to be rethought and brought into line with value received.
Webb: Could the state park system be considered a service to the people of our state?
Roy Schweiger (I’m probably sorry about the spelling) pointed out that there was nothing to prevent affluent seniors from paying more. He also stated that he thinks active duty military folks are paid plenty, certainly more than average retirees. He thinks they’re looking at the wrong group to charge. People who ski at Cannon should pay more, but realistically, how many is that? He also suggested that free coupons could be left at welfare offices if the committee were really concerned about poor people and out of work people who aren’t yet seniors. Roy also noted that that parks charge the same fees all year round, even during the off- season when services are not provided.
The issue of out of work folks was raised after my testimony (which was just before Mr. Schweiger’s.)
This is much of what I had to say. I did some improv while reading it:
I’m going to quote directly from the amended analysis of the bill:
This bill changes the fees for admission to state parks and historical sites for persons 65 years of age or older by ALLOWING them to purchase a Granite Parks Pass at one third the cost of an individual season’s pass.
That sounds so generous, doesn’t it? ALLOWING seniors to purchase a discounted pass. The thing is, those same seniors can access most of our state parks and historical sites right now for free.
As we all know, NH funds our state park system entirely by user fees. This is a unique system – no other state in the union does it. The reason for that is simple. It doesn’t work, which is why this shameful bill sits before you today. The NH park system runs at about a $400,000 annual budget deficit. Maintenance and repairs are long deferred, and park programs cut. In a state where tourism is our #2 industry, this neglect of the park system only serves to hurt our state’s economy.
A season’s pass to the NH park system is currently available for $60. A third of that is $20, the fee that NH seniors would be “allowed” to pay. Maine and Massachusetts give their seniors free access to state parks. Vermont charges residents aged 62 and older $2.00 for lifetime passes. For ten dollars, a US citizen aged 62 and up can buy a lifetime pass to our national park system. That’s unlimited visits to the Grand Canyon, Acadia, or any of the 57 other parks - for the rest of their lives. Here in NH, the sponsors of this bill think it would be appropriate to charge seniors twenty dollars a season to access our state parks.
Will gouging people on fixed incomes make a big dent in that annual $400,000 budget deficit? These are people who are trying desperately to hang on to their homes, as their property taxes rise every year. Seniors on fixed incomes are making choices about food vs. medication. A season’s pass to our state park system may well be beyond the reach of many of our senior citizens if this bill passes.
The way we fund our parks doesn’t work. At some point, perhaps we will be able to acknowledge that simple fact, and come up with a new plan. This bill isn’t the solution. In fact, this bill is so mean spirited that we should all be ashamed that it was ever even written.
I encourage the committee to find this bill inexpedient to legislate.
I did point out that this disproportionately affected women because we earn less over our lifetimes and thus have less retirement money.
I was asked about how I would fund the National Parks since they’re having financial issues. I said that if we cut the Pentagon budget in half there would be plenty of money to fix everything that needs fixing, it’s just a question of priorities. I was also asked how I’d fund the park system and the state, and I said I’d support an income tax, so that our 27,000 millionaires were no longer living here in tax free splendor, and would pull their freight.
I was also asked why I cared about this bill, why I was paying attention.
It makes a certain weird kind of sense if one thinks about it. Nearly everyone who testified has some sort of connection. The lead sponsor of the bill, Senator Stiles, is also on the State Parks Advisory Council. So are some members of the committee: Rep. Andrew Renzullo, and Rep. Christopher Ahlgren. This is the same committee that Jeff Gilbert was representing. Mr. Gilbert is a resident of Rye, and a former state rep. That I had no connection made me suspect.
The real irony here is that Republicans are loudly opposed to all fee increases – yet here they are, (Renzullo, Stiles, Ahlgren, Gilbert) quietly and almost surreptitiously asking for one, hoping no one will notice.