California has more natural beauty than almost any other state. More beaches and forests, and more state parks to preserve them. California also has more budget problems, enough that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget includes no general fund money for the state's 278 parks.
That omission, and a billion-dollar repair backlog, is why a coalition of state and national environmental groups is gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would create a $500 million revenue source for the parks.
If passed, the money would come from an $18 increase on the registrations of another thing California has more of than any other state: cars.
That's an "if" as big as Lake Oroville Park's Feather Falls. State lawmakers debated a similar plan in last year's budget, but it failed to garner Republican support.
"It's a separate bill to pay, and it's very visible to people," said Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., who opposes the initiative.
Campbell was executive of a car dealership group before he was elected to represent the 48th District, and recalls that Schwarzenegger's first act as governor was to reverse a steep increase in the vehicle license fee that helped motivate voters to oust his predecessor, Gray Davis.
Schwarzenegger opposed the vehicle fee last year, and now wants to use royalties from a new offshore drilling lease to fund the parks.
Still, aversion to vehicle fees hasn't prevented Californians for State Parks and Wildlife Conservation from collecting more than half of the 477,000 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot.
"People are getting something back," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, one of the groups in the coalition backing the initiative.
In exchange for the vehicle fee, motorists would get free day use admission to every park in the state. Most parks charge $10 for parking, and most of the popular beaches charge $15.
"If you're in Southern California, you get your money back after one visit," said Goldstein.
Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., sees broad support. "Today, of all the initiatives, this is the most popular in California," said Farr. His paradisiacal 17th District contains dozens of parks.
The parks initiative could be tempting to voters with a state park nearby. It so happens the state's parks are concentrated in coastal, areas, rather than the agricultural interior.
Should the parks initiative make the November ballot, its fate could be determined by where the state's beaches stretch and its forests stand.
This article appears in the March 6, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.