Kansas Legislature may use state parks earnings to pay for income tax cuts

For years, Kansas’ state parks have dealt with declining funding from the state Legislature.

Now, they may lose about $500,000 from state park earnings, one of several budget actions being proposed to pay for income tax cuts that took effect in January.

Robin Jennison, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism secretary, said last week the House Appropriations Committee recommended taking money from fees earned from park cabin rentals. The money would go to the state’s general fund.

Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, the committee chairman, said he has been checking the accounts of scores of state departments for several weeks.

“The tax cut we got as of Jan. 1 is going to cost us $400 million, so you have to make it up in other ways,” Rhoades said.

Rhoades said the cabin fee fund was picked because it had a growing balance, and it was his job to “find funds that had more money coming in than going out.”

In all, the House Appropriations Committee is recommending taking about $18 million from various funds from a variety of state agencies.

Linda Lanterman, state parks director, said it is important for parks to maintain a sizable amount of funds this time of the year, when a lot of maintenance is done, but peak attendance and income is still a few months away.

Jennison said the move comes as the financially strapped agency deals with other cutbacks and the challenge of finding ways to pay more of its own bills.

“We made the commitment last year to become more self-sufficient, and try to get away from state tax money,” Jennison said. “Now they want to take revenue from the people paying to utilize the parks. ... That’s 180 degrees from what we’ve been trying to do.”

He said the annual state park budget is more than $10 million. Earlier this year the department had been notified it also will get about $660,000 less from the state’s lottery fund compared to last year, and $350,000 less from the Kansas Department of Transportation, which annually shares some funds with the state parks.

“That’s a loss of about $1.5 million, an 18 percent reduction in our budget from last year,” Jennison said. “My gosh, that’s huge when you consider how things have already been.”

He said state parks’ budget has grown steadily since it was about $9 million in 2007, even though help from state sources has dropped from about $5 million in 2009 to as low as about $3 million in 2011.

Financial strain

Jennison said parks have been under increased financial strain the past few years because of things like the cuts in state funding and decreased state park attendance due to extreme heat, drought and blue-green algae infestations, which made reservoir waters unsafe for many sports.

Meanwhile fuel and utilities, some of the department’s highest expenses, have gone up dramatically in that same time.

Lanterman said tight park budgets have largely put a hold on capital improvements for several years, putting off things like road repairs, replacing roofs on outbuildings and replacing worn-out maintenance equipment.

Also, state parks have postponed hirings to fill vacant jobs and delayed the hiring of seasonal help for spring and summer maintenance.

To help raise funds, Lanterman said state parks have recently stopped offering discounts for second vehicles owned by park users, started a reservation system that requires payment in advance and raised utility fees.

“We’re trying to do our part,” Lanterman said.

Beginning this year, it also has begun offering reduced-rate annual state park vehicle permits at county courthouses when motorists register their vehicle. Jennison hopes the new Parks Passport program eventually does well enough to wean parks from state funding, but said it’s too early to predict income amounts.

Revenue from cabins

Jennison and Lanterman said fees from state park cabins are considered an important part of funding the parks.

Kansas’ first state park cabins were created in the mid-1990s, when basic shelter structures were enclosed to create primitive cabins. Jennison estimates the roughly 115 cabins that are scattered amid most state parks, and some other state areas, earn about $1 million annually.

Most of that is profit, too, because Gov. Sam Brownback allocated about $1.7 million from state casino revenue in 2012 to pay off any debt owed for building the cabins.

Mike Hayden, a past governor and later a Wildlife and Parks secretary for nine years, said very little, if any, state general fund money ever went into the cabins. Hayden said most were paid for by the Kansas Wildscape Foundation, a nonprofit group he helped found in 1991 as a way to promote outdoor enjoyment and education in Kansas.

For several years fees from cabin rentals went to pay back Wildscape, until Brownback’s one-time allocation.

Kansas Wildscape gets no funding from the Legislature. Hayden added many of the cabins were constructed by inmates at Kansas correctional facilities to help keep costs low while providing some educational opportunities for inmates.

“What we have is a lot of legislators with no history of the program,” Hayden said “They don’t realize they never paid a penny for (the cabins). They say they want (state parks) to become self-sufficient, then they take away some of the major sources of funding. It’s not right.”

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