By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The simmering budget fight over Wisconsin’s state parks looks ready to boil over after the Department of Natural Resources recommended lawmakers raise admission fees again, build more electrified camping sites and sell naming rights.
Democrats on the Legislature’s finance committee are dusting off their old arguments, warning that the moves could make parks too expensive for families and that naming rights won’t generate enough money to make the parks self-sustaining.
“How many times can you raise fees before it becomes unaffordable for Wisconsin families?” the Democrats said in a Dec. 5 letter to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp.
Republicans removed all state support for Wisconsin’s parks in the 2015 budget, leaving the parks to survive on fees alone. They raised admission and camping fees, increasing them by $3 to $11 depending on the park, but the DNR still projects the lack of state support will leave a $1.4 million annual deficit in the agency’s parks account.
The budget also directed the DNR to develop recommendations for generating more revenue. With the 2017 session ahead, the DNR has suggested lawmakers:
—Charge $5 to $10 more for admission according to park popularity.
—Raise camping fees from $2 to $5 per night based on park popularity or increasing camping fees for high-demand parks by $10.
— Add electricity at more camping sites to attract recreational vehicles. Currently 23 percent of Wisconsin’s sites are electrified. If the state repeals a cap on electrified sites, about 1,750 more could be added.
— Change state law to allow more rental lodging at state parks at a price ranging from $49 to $120 per night.
— Sell naming rights and establish trademark rights to park facilities or features, allowing the DNR to collect sponsorship, royalty and trademark-use money.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker will introduce the 2017-19 budget in February. The finance committee will revise his plan and forward it to the Legislature for full approval. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson was noncommittal when asked which recommendations the governor might incorporate into the budget.
DNR spokesman James Dick said the agency isn’t advocating for any of the recommendations specifically.
Democrats on the budget committee fought bitterly against the fee increases in the current state budget, ripping Walker for not finding money to support the parks. They also tried unsuccessfully to pass a motion to bar the DNR from selling state park land or naming rights. They’re already re-forming old battle lines.
“We are concerned that this approach to continually increase fees for Wisconsin families and sell out our parks to private companies is short-sighted and will not be sustainable,” the four committee Democrats — Sens. Jon Erpenbach and Lena Taylor and Reps. Chris Taylor and Gordon Hintz — wrote in their letter to Stepp. “Do any of the revenue projections provided consider lower attendance?”
Bill Zager, president of the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks, which works to protect and promote state parks, said he’s not worried. The recommendations don’t call for selling naming rights to parks, only their facilities, he said. Creating rental cabins and expanding the number of electrical sites are both good changes, he added, saying recreational vehicle users won’t pay admission and camping fees if there’s nowhere to plug in.
Demand-based admission fees could help push people to lesser-known parks, he said, adding that $35 for a carload of people to gain access to a state park for a year is still a bargain.