Why Republicans Should Support Proposition 21

In my lonely quest to get people interested in Proposition 21, I’ve written other posts about it, and tried to answer objections.  But one objection, usually offered by Republicans, deserves a closer look, because addressing it means that Republicans should vote for Proposition 21 even if one accepts their premises about the Legislature and the budget.

Proposition 21 would impose an $18-per-year addition to the state’s Vehicle License Fee, and create a trust fund for the state’s beleaguered park system.  It would also end all parking and user fees at state parks.  Unsurprisingly, Republicans balk: we like state parks, too, they say, but the Legislature will just use the money currently budgeted for parks on other things, defund the parks, and leave us right back where we started.  Put another way, they argue, this isn’t a “parks” initiative at all: just a way to give more money to the Legislature.

Now, that’s wrong as an empirical matter, because the $500 million to be raised by Proposition 21 far exceeds the $130 million the parks currently get (down from $200 million in previous years).  But there is a bigger reason why, if you’re a Republican, you shouldn’t fall for this.  Here’s why:

Whenever there is a big state budget deficit — which is to say, always — Republicans say they want to cut spending. Democrats refuse, but they usually cite popular programs like state parks.  “Don’t cut our parks!” they say.

Proposition 21 gives Republicans an answer to that: “don’t threaten us with that,” they will able to say.  “You know very well that state parks have their own dedicated revenue source.  You’re just defending welfare recipients.”  Republicans usually complain that Democrats pretend to protect popular things for the middle-class but actually cut anyway and protect their favored constituencies like welfare recipients and public sector unions.  From the Republican perspective, Proposition 21 gives their party a chance to unmask the Democratic shell game.  In other words, Proposition 21 is part of an effort to give Republicans the budget battle that they say they want: between entrenched Democratic constituencies and hard-working California taxpayers.

Now, if I were a cynic, I would say that some Republicans reject Proposition 21 for the precise converse reason I adduced here: they want to force the Democrats to choose between the poor and the middle class.  My inner cynic would notice that whenever it comes to budget cutting time, they force cuts not with regards to entrenched constituencies but rather against low-income children.  Put another way, they will not vote for any benefits for the middle class until the Democrats cast off the poor.  But I’m not going to say that.  I’m just going to say that the if the GOP really wants to force the issue about wasteful government in front of the voters, supporting Proposition 21 should be right up their alley.

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Why Republicans Should Support Proposition 21”

  1. I don’t understand this post at all. Based on what you describe, the proposition will increase revenue, freeing up the state legislature to reallocate funds currently devoted to parks to other things. A bigger concern, from my standpoint, is that this proposition seem to shift the economic costs of maintaining the parks from those who use them to the public at large, and that this is likely to be regressive. This is because user fees paid by park users will be replaced with a fee on all vehicle owners — so lower income individuals who don’t use the parks as much as middle or upper income folks will be paying more for parks, while the actual users of the parks — those who benefit most from the parks and whose use increases the costs of maintenance, upkeep, etc. — get a break. How is that fair or efficient? And why should Republicans like this idea?

    I can’t speak for Republicans generally, but economic conservatives should see this as a bad deal. Parks should be paid for by those of us who use them and derive the greatest benefit from them. At the National level, park user fees are ridiculously low (and I say that as someone who purchases an Eagle pass every year). Reducing user fees and replacing them with a tax on a more general activity (like vehicle registration) may create a dedicated revenue stream, but it’s not a particularly market-oriented or fiscally conservative approach to park funding and management.

    I realize I may be missing something here, as I know relatively little about California’s park system. But were I a California resident, the information provided in this post would make me more likely to oppose the Proposition than to support it.


  2. Jon — it’s about practical politics, not economic theory. Republicans say that they like state parks, but they don’t want the Legislature spending the money on other things, just as you say. But they ALSO say that the Democrats only seek to protect their favored constituencies and use popular things like state parks as the excuse. What I’m saying is that once state parks have their own dedicated revenue source, Democrats can no longer use this excuse. That should be something that Republicans like.

    As for the idea that Republicans are really concerned about the distributional issues, the best response is what Charles Black said: the “sovereign prerogative of laughter.” Given the way that Republicans seek to preserve tax cuts for multimillionaires and cut porgrams for low-income kids, that’s pretty transparently hypocritical on their part. In any event, the distributional equities don’t cut that way. Any people who really can’t afford the extra $18 are transit-dependent, and so wouldn’t pay the VLF anyway. And state parks are used by working and low-income people because they are a bargain: they are, as someone said, “country clubs for the working class.” This is a good deal for them.

    I smile at your notion that Prop 21 is not a “fiscally conservative” approach: what does fiscal conservatism have to do with the Republican Party?

  3. There is a lot to be said for conservative economics (applied conservatively), but Jhadler’s point about funding parks with higher fees paid by those use them is an example of taking market ideas to point of the ridiculous. Is there no public good? With apologies to jhadler, I see this as a sad example of where such rhetoric has led. If less popular parks don’t get enough visitors to break even should we close them? The price of an Eagle Pass may or may not be too low, and the lifetime National Parks pass for seniors is certainly way too low, but to say the entire cost of a park should be borne solely by those who enter it doesn’t recognize the economic or, perhaps more importantly, the community value a park brings to a place. How much to charge to the user of Central Park?

    Practically speaking, I think if parks were funded on user fees alone, the fees would be exorbitant.

    The NY Times columnist Tim Egan had a nice piece on our public lands a month ago. It’s not about the money.


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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

READ more

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