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Lawmakers gave initial approval Tuesday to a measure 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.

They voted 32-1 to give first-round approval to a measure (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. A second measure (LB841), by Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, was rolled into the bill and would use the sales tax now charged on all-terrain and utility-type vehicles to help Game and Parks.

Those collections combined are estimated to be $3.3 million the first year and $3.7 million the second year. The transfer of those tax collections for Game and Parks would end after five years, unless the Legislature would extend it.

"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 rec 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 more than $580 million in tax revenue and supporting 44,000 jobs.

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

"I learned that many communities and individuals contacted the commission to find out how to keep the gates open on their own local parks. 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," Avery said, adding that one-third of all state parks don't even open until May in order to save money.

The bill faces two more rounds of consideration.

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