Lawmakers begin parks funding push

2014-01-29T15:15:00Z 2015-05-20T14:59:23Z Lawmakers begin parks funding pushBy KEVIN O'HANLON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
January 29, 2014 3:15 pm  • 

The push to help the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission overcome a $43 million shortfall in deferred maintenance and the cost to comply with the federally mandated Americans with Disabilities Act began in earnest Wednesday, with state lawmakers discussing two measures to divert tax dollars for the task.

The Revenue Committee discussed a bill (LB814) by Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln that would take existing taxes collected from the sale of motorboats and personal watercraft and send it to a Game and Parks capital maintenance fund. It would generate $2.5 million a year.

A second measure, (LB841) by Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, would use the sales tax now charged on all-terrain and utility-type vehicles to help Game and Parks. It would generate some $1.8 million over the first two years.

"We can no longer ignore that Nebraska Game and Parks continues to face a very serious and ongoing public safety issue," Avery said.

Nebraska's eight state parks, 11 historic parks, 64 recreation areas and two recreational trails draw more than 12 million visitors a year. But in recent years, Game and Parks has had to reduce maintenance, mowing and trash removal at some parks and recreation areas because of budget cuts and cost increases. And some are closed to motor vehicle traffic for the winter.

Three other bills have been introduced aimed at helping the parks system:

* LB873 by Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill would give Game and Parks a one-time infusion of $15 million.

* LB874 by Larson would allocate $2.5 million for improvements at Ponca State Park in northeast Nebraska.

* LB1033 by Dan Watermeier of Syracuse would allocate $2.1 million for Arbor Lodge in Nebraska City.

According to the 2011 National Association of State Park Directors, state parks account for 17 of the top 25 most popular tourist attractions in Nebraska. According to the U.S. Department of Tourism, the annual spending impact of tourism in Nebraska is $3.7 billion, generating over $580 million in tax revenue and supporting 44,000 jobs.

Avery noted that charitable foundations -- including the Kiewit Foundation and Friends of Ponca State Park -- have donated thousands of dollars and organized volunteer drives to help fund state parks.

"In fact, while one-third of our state parks and recreational areas remain closed under an administrative order of the Game and Parks Commission, I learned that many communities and individuals contacted the commission to find out how to keep the gates open on their own local parks," Avery said. "There are some amazing stories of selfless individuals and communities that came out of these park closures, but in the end it's just not enough."

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.

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