San Mateo, Santa Clara voters support vehicle fees – Statewide, nix Prop. 21 for parks

Staff reporter Julia James contributed to this story

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Half Moon Bay State Beach and the rest of the California state parks faced an uncertain financial future as voters appeared to have rejected Proposition 21 Tuesday night (Photo: Julia James).

Voters late Tuesday night appeared to have rejected a proposed statewide vehicle license surcharge that would have helped support state parks, but in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties they approved similar measures to support local roads.

Proposition 21 would have added an $18 surcharge to the annual license fee to keep state parks running smoothly. At 10:40 p.m., with 14 percent of the precincts reporting, 60 percent of voters had rejected the measure.

“We don’t need to charge extra money – what is essentially a tax – in order to do what (legislators) should have been doing all along,” said Placerville resident Barney Scholl, who voted against the measure.

Santa Clara County Measure B and San Mateo County Measure M will implement annual $10 vehicle license surcharges for road maintenance in their respective jurisdictions.

At 10 p.m., with 28 percent of Santa Clara precincts reporting, 53 percent of the vote cast favored Measure B. In San Mateo County, 54 percent of votes cast were for Measure M.

Proposition 21 would have eliminated current day-use fees of $5 to $15 at all 278 state parks for registered California drivers. Camping, tours and other activities would have still been subject to charges.

Officials estimated that the surcharge would have applied to 28 million vehicles, generating $500 million in annual revenues for a trust fund dedicated to parks and wildlife conservation.

California’s state parks system, the largest in the U.S. at 1.5 million acres, has been in jeopardy since the start of the economic downturn.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year proposed closing 220 parks as he wrestled with a $24-billion budget deficit. Lawmakers opted against that plan, instead slashing the 2009-2010 parks budget by $14.2 million.

The move affected 150 state parks, forcing them to close part-time or reduce services.

Voters’ rejection of Proposition 21 leaves state parks facing a $1-billion repair backlog, and a budget shortfall that officials expect to reach $20.7 billion by 2011.

“We don’t have the funds even to do the day-to-day maintenance, much less deferred maintenance,” said Paul Keel, state parks sector superintendant for the San Mateo Coast.

“That’s the biggest frustration – to not be able to attend to those needs, and then just see them pile up through the years,” Keel said. We’re constantly kind of putting on the duck tape and trying to do the best we can with the budget that we have.”

Under the current system, state funding for the operation of the parks has been around $300 million annually and covered by the general fund and adjusted each fiscal year.

That’s an “unstable funding source at the whim of the current budget situation” and the mood of the legislature and governor, said Jim Metropulos, senior advocate in the Sacramento chapter of the Sierra Club.

Proposition 21 supporters said the vehicle-registration surcharge will free up approximately $130 million of the state’s general fund for other purposes.

But opponents of the measure said they didn’t want to let lawmakers off the hook with so-called “ballot-box budgeting.”

The Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle both opposed Proposition 21, with the Times calling it “another well-intentioned effort…that limits the Legislature’s ability to set spending priorities” during lean financial times.

Wendy Nelson, spokeswoman for the “No” campaign, called the additional fee a “regressive tax,” saying it would have affected low-income residents the most.

“I think people just have a fundamental disgust with the legislature right now,” Nelson said before the election.

Proposition 21 opponents spent relatively little money fighting the proposed fee increase, with voter sentiment already leaning in their favor.

While supporters of Proposition 21 put over $6 million behind the yes campaign, opponents donated only $74,000.

The Nature Conservancy was the largest contributor to the yes campaign at $1.5 million, followed closely by the Conservation Action Fund with $1.3 million.

Funding for the opposition campaign came primarily from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which contributed $49,000. Another $25,000 came from the Enterprise rental car chain, according to the Secretary of State’s website.

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