CARSON CITY -- State Sen. John Lee thinks it's a fair trade: You pay a mandatory $3 more for your annual vehicle registration, and you get into Nevada's 25 state parks for free.
Lee, D-North Las Vegas, said his bill draft request will stabilize dwindling revenue for the state's park system.
Opponents say the registration fee is akin to a new tax for people who don't want to use state parks. Backers say it is an inventive way to offset declining general fund support for parks and give Nevadans an added benefit for living here.
Alan Gegax of Las Vegas, who hikes frequently at Valley of Fire State Park, reflects the mixed reaction: "I kind of like the idea of everybody having access to the parks, but still, because of the overall budget crisis, I think we could find better uses for that money."
Lee said a funding change is needed to remove parks from the general fund, which Gov. Brian Sandoval wants to reduce by 6.4 percent.
"What is happening right now, the state parks are basically a drain on the general fund," Lee said. "Hopefully, one day there will be a stand-alone agency, they'll just be self-funded."
Under Sandoval's budget proposal, general fund support for state parks would be $6.4 million for 2011-13, down from $16.1 million from 2007-09, the last budget built before the economic recession.
The cuts have prompted park management to all but eliminate spending on long-term maintenance, leading to deteriorating facilities at parks across the state.
A 2002 voter-approved bond measure provided about $27 million for parks maintenance, but that money is nearly gone.
"That has kept us really afloat," said David Morrow, director of the park system, but the system now faces declining revenue and looming maintenance problems.
Among the problems are a leaking drinking water tank that supplies much of Valley of Fire; freeze-thaw erosion that has damaged handicap access ramps at Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park; and bank erosion that threatens to undermine picnic pavilions at Big Bend of the Colorado River State Recreation Area.
A recent flood also filled a Big Bend ravine with debris that, if not removed, could make future floods more damaging.
In addition to the lack of funds for such existing maintenance, Morrow said little money is available should floods or fires cause unexpected damage: "If we have a big breakdown in infrastructure, I don't know what we would do."
The park system is also prepared to close at least one unit, Dangberg Historic Ranch in Minden, should Sandoval's budget be approved.
The state took over management of the 154-year-old ranch home and museum in 2005 from Douglas County, which owns the property.
Using voter-approved bond money, the state replaced roofs and made other improvements, and began conducting tours. Without new funding, management will be turned back to Douglas County.
Suzanne Sturtevant, superintendent of Dangberg Ranch and Mormon Station parks, said that while visitors have said the extensive tour at Dangberg is worth more than the current $3 fee, the park system won't increase it.
"The governor says no new taxes or fees, so we have not increased the fee," Sturtevant said.
It's unlikely Republicans would support a new fee on automobile registration, denying Lee's proposal the two-thirds support needed to move a bill increasing revenues through the legislature.
Conservative activist and consultant Chuck Muth calls the plan a tax increase.
"As it is now, only people who want to use the park pay the entrance fee. That's a true user fee," he said.
Under the car registration plan, "everyone would now have to pay for the parks, even if they don't use them."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3861.