CALIFORNIA:

Schwarzenegger's park plan a long shot in Sacramento

SAN FRANCISCO -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to close 220 California parks to help offset the state's budget deficit is unlikely to survive the legislative session in Sacramento, according to key lawmakers and lobbyists.

Under a sweeping $3 billion package of spending cuts released last week, Schwarzenegger's park proposal would save $70 million in the next fiscal year and $143 million the following.

Parks on the list include Humboldt County's Redwoods State Park, home to the world's tallest tree, and a number of popular camping and hiking destinations. Also targeted is the State Capitol Museum in Sacramento.

The Republican governor says the closings are necessary to address a deficit that by some estimates has surpassed $24 billion. The plan calls for laying off thousands of rangers, biologists and maintenance workers that staff the parks, sparing only those locations (many of them beaches) that receive local government support.

But skeptics say closing parks is nearly as expensive as keeping them open. Jared Huffman, the Democratic chairman of the state Assembly's parks and wildlife committee, said Schwarzenegger's budget is unlikely to fly in the Legislature, as it would "cripple the state park system for a decade a more."

"At first blush, you might think you could mothball a state park, and then flip a switch and open it up again," Huffman said in an interview. "It's a lot more complicated than that."

Huffman, who admits some parks will have to face cuts, argues that state parks are a "tremendous part" of California's economy that draws visitors to the state and contributes to local economies. And shuttered parks face a number of challenges, among them the need to police the lands to avoid vandalism and vagrancy.

"We have to be very, very careful about how we approach this," Huffman said. "This is our natural infrastructure. People come from all over the world to use these parks."

Yet the governor, following a series of recent election defeats, appears serious about slashing spending from every corner. California voters last month rejected a number of ballot measures meant to reform the budget process with targeted tax increases and revenue raisers, which prompted his cost-cutting plan.

The reality of those rejections has begun to set in. In Los Angeles, officials have canceled almost all summer school programs for the year, and other school districts are bracing for similar measures.

Lisa Page, a Schwarzenegger spokeswoman, said the voters sent the signal, in voting against the ballot measures, that fiscal restraint is the only option.

"The voters gave the leaders of this state a directive to cut government spending and live within our means as all California families and business are having to tighten their belts and cut back right now," Page wrote in an e-mail last week. "The scope and the severity of this recession have forced us to put options on the table that would have been unthinkable just a few short months ago."

A similar plan, to close 48 parks, was rejected in the Legislature last year. Jerry Emory, head of communications at the California State Parks Foundation, expects similar treatment this year, despite the gloomy budget picture.

Emory said the money the governor says he would save by closing the parks represents "less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the entire state budget." And this discounts what he calls the "multiplier effect" of funds going into local economies from visitors and tourists.

"This is not only devastating to the parks ... it's very negative for local communities," Emory said. "These parks are at the height of their popularity."

Huffman said he and other prominent Democrats who control the Legislature favor a "case by case" analysis to see which parks are best suited for closing. He also wants to look at more creative ways to increase fees and raise revenues.

The fate of the parks, he added, will ultimately come down to negotiations between the governor and Democratic leaders in Sacramento. But he anticipates an agreement that would see most of the parks on Schwarzenegger's list remaining open past Labor Day.

"This proposal just wouldn't work," Huffman said. "It would cost more money to try to keep people out of the parks."

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