Scottsbluff Star-Herald. Feb. 2, 2014.
Parks funding: It's time for the Legislature to make up for neglect of our public lands
Two dozen Nebraska state recreation areas and five state historical parks were shut down last fall and aren't supposed to open until May. They include three Panhandle sites: Oliver and Walgren lakes, and Ash Hollow State Historical Park.
The state said it couldn't afford to keep them open. The State Game and Parks Commission said the closures were necessary to tackle more than $30 million in deferred maintenance work. Given the state of the nation's economy over the past few years, some slippage might be understandable. But Nebraskans saw a recent $5 hike in the price of annual park permits. The governor and others said repealing a statewide ban on alcoholic beverages in the parks would boost attendance and solve some of the system's financial woes, which have been ongoing. Over the past few years, the commission laid off 20 percent of its workforce. At some sites in the Panhandle, mowing and garbage pickup has been cut back.
The good news is that Game and Parks Commission officials testifying at the Nebraska Legislature last week heard almost unanimous support for plans to spend an additional $3.2 million a year for deferred maintenance and compliance projects at state parks. That money would come from directing sales taxes on purchases of motor boats and personal watercraft from the general fund to Game and Parks, as well as redirecting sales taxes on all-terrain vehicles used for recreation.
About the only opposition to the plan came from State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has vowed to gum up any Game and Parks progress until lawmakers agree to end a recently approved mountain lion hunt.
Game and Parks representatives said they face a backlog of maintenance projects at the aging parks as well as $13 million in work to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. That's not really the fault of boaters, jet skiers and ATV owners, who would see their taxes go toward rectifying the state's neglect of its parks system.
As we noted recently, Nebraska has the lowest percentage of public land of any state in the nation. It has only eight state parks. Altogether, Nebraska's state parks and 59 state recreational areas, including water, total only about 200,000 acres. Tourism is Nebraska's third-largest industry. With 9 million visitors per year, the state ought to make maintaining its limited park land a higher priority.
Current funding sources aren't keeping up with the need for funding. Only 70 percent of the park system's operating budget comes from user fees, mostly park entry permits. Some of the maintenance backlog could be paid for from the state's cash reserve; thanks to a recovering economy, it's projected to grow to $726 million by June 30, which would be a record amount. And since some lawmakers see booze as part of the parks' salvation, perhaps diverting part of the state's liquor tax to help fund parks services (trash pickup comes to mind) wouldn't be a bad idea either.
It's time for the state to stop charging more and offering less. Parks fuel business in nearby communities, and park visitors expect well-maintained facilities. They don't expect to see themselves locked out of Nebraska's scarce public lands. It's time for the Legislature to be a better steward of our parks.
Lincoln Journal Star. Jan. 31, 2014.
Peddling influence by the rules
Rep. Adrian Smith is drawing the wrong kind of attention to Nebraska.
A story in the New York Times provided a few details of the 3rd district representative's swanky fund-raising weekend in Vail, Colo.
The story began: "After some time in the hot tub, an evening cocktail reception and a two-and-one-half-hour dinner in a private dining room named Out of Bounds, Representative Adrian Smith made one last stop, visiting the lounge at the Four Seasons Resort Hotel to spend more time with the lobbyists and other donors who had jetted in from Washington, D.C., to join him for the weekend getaway."
From one perspective, Smith just had the bad luck to be spotlighted by the national newspaper doing something that has become all too common.
As the story reported, this is the way the game of Washington politics is played these days.
It's not just Republicans. Democrats also enjoy "destination fund-raisers" in such locales as Puerto Rico and Beverly Hills during the Grammy Awards.
You may remember that in 2007 Congress passed legislation with strict rules against lobbyists giving gifts.
Times passes, and Beltway insiders figured out a way around the law. Now the weekend events like the one featuring Smith are the norm.
Here's the money trail. Corporate executives and lobbyists give money to political action committees and campaign organizations. Those organizations turn around and pay the expenses for events like Smith's weekend in Vail.
According to the Times, such events usually are attended by about 50 to 100 donors and lobbyists, who donate between $1,000 and $5,000 apiece and pay their own hotel bills and airfare. So, by the letter of the law, no gifts are exchanged.
A typical event would have expenses of $25,000 and raise $75,000.
"This is a good way to raise some funds," Smith told the Times.
It certainly sounds that way. The meal included Wagyu strip steak, bacon-wrapped prawns and kimchi Brussels sprouts, washed down with $60-a -bottle red wine.
While the new system is perfectly legal, it wreaks the same harm on good government as the old system of outright gift-giving.