Two paths: Ballot, budget targeted in dispute over state parks funding

In raw dollars, the dispute over state parks’ funding is small in comparison with a $20 billion state budget shortage.

But the question of whether to close state parks or use money from offshore oil drilling money to keep them open is sparking a heated debate in the Capitol. It pits park preservationists and environmentalists against the Schwarzenegger administration, and it has re-ignited the decades-old debate over drilling off the Santa Barbara coast.

It also has spawned a proposed November ballot initiative – it hasn’t yet qualified – that would add $18 to vehicle license fees and use the money to support the parks. In return, the public would get unrestricted day use at state parks throughout California, including the state beaches. Overnight camping and other specialty programs would continue to require payment. The initiative, which could generate upwards of $500 million annually, is backed by the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the California Travel Industry Association and the California State Parks Foundation, among others.

“We’re out there with volunteers collecting signatures and have been since Jan. 9,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, executive director of the California State Parks Foundation. Part of the strategy is to get on a ballot in an election where turnout is expected to be high. “Strictly speaking, we wanted to be in a big election when there are other kinds of activities, like the governor’s race,” she said.

More than half of California’s 278 state parks were affected in some fashion by budget cuts in the 2008-09 budget, Goldstein said. The parks receive about $140 million from the General Fund – the state’s main fund of tax money – and nearly the same amount from fees. More than four out of every five dollars raised through the proposed initiative would go to the state, and most of the remainder would go the Department of Fish and Game, the California Ocean Protection Council, state conservancies, the Wildlife Conservation Board, among others.

The governor has proposed removing General Fund support from the parks, and making up for the loss with $140 million siphoned from revenues from the Tranquillon Ridge project mounted by Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Co., or PXP. PXP’s plan is to sink a slant well from a federal platform off Santa Barbara County and operate it through 2022.

Last year, faced with deep budget shortages, the administration was able to keep parks generally intact by deferring maintenance and other savings, but the administration said that this year it would consider other options.

“When we were talking about having to close the parks,” said Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer, “we said we were going to pursue options for alternative funding. Our preferred alternative is the Tranquillon Ridge proposal.”

The project would generate about $100 million the first year and $119 million in 2010-11,l for a total of $219 million. Of that $140 would be directed to the parks, and the remaining $79 million would flow into the General Fund, Palmer said.

The PXP operation would use existing infrastructure and a controversial agreement brokered by local environmentalists includes limits on future drilling by other companies.
Critics of the plan say the latter provision is unenforceable, and the issue has sparked an intense political fight in Santa Barbara. In addition to payments, the state also would get 4,000 acres of Gaviota-area coastal land and other benefits.

The PXP proposal was rejected by the State Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over drilling leases. The governor sought to make an end run around the commission by giving authority over the lease to his own Finance Department, which writes the governor’s budgets. That move failed in the Legislature.

If approved, the project would mark the first new state offshore oil drilling lease since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, a defining political and environmental moment in the Central Coast’s history.

The possibility of new drilling has enflamed local environmentalists, who already have shown little love for the governor. “He appears absolutely determined to get this project approved regardless of the problems with it and the lack of enforceability,” said Susan Jordan of the Coastal Protection Network and a candidate for the state Assembly. “California has drawn a line in the sand on off-shore drilling, but this sends a message to the nation that we’ve changed our mind and that off-shore drilling is safe.”

The uncertainty of the project’s approval also has raised doubts about whether the $140 million will really be available. If Gov. Schwarzenegger’s pick of Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Santa Maria Republican, is confirmed by the Legislature, Maldonado will take fill a vacancy on the State Lands Commission and could be a key vote if PXP’s project comes back before the three-member panel.

The commission voted 2-1 earlier to reject the project, but one of the no votes was former Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who resigned to take a seat in Congress. There has been speculation that Maldonado would vote to approve the project if he takes a seat on the commission – a suggestion that Maldonado has publicly disavowed.

If the proposal is rejected again, the General Fund will be on the hook for the parks’ funding – an issue that will be debated as part of the budget discussions, Palmer said.

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