Editorial: Don't blindside drivers with state parks pass

The Detroit News
Tim Walters, 57, of Kalamazoo puts a boat in the water at Hamlin Lake at Ludington State Park. Walters was fishing for walleye with Steve Staskiewicz, 50, of Mattawan. "I'm all for saving and preserving whatever we can," Walters said. "Once you take it away, it's gone forever."

Legislation introduced in the Michigan House would make state park vehicle passes mandatory, unless drivers opted out. Michigan’s state parks and recreations areas are a tremendous resource, but this is a sneaky way to boost funding for their upkeep.

If state parks are in need of additional money, lawmakers need to find an honest way to fund them rather than turning what is now purely optional for drivers into a default tax increase.

Drivers have the option to purchase the state parks pass — the recreation passport — for $11 when they register or renew the registration on their vehicles. This is a handy way to purchase the pass and has boosted revenue for state parks, whose sole funding sources are camping fees and recreation passports.

Since the passes became available during vehicle registration in 2011, participation has escalated, rising from 24% in its first year to a projected 35% participation in 2019, says Ron Olson, chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Parks and Recreation Division. Funds from passes have increased to roughly $30 million today from $19 million in 2012. 

Making the park pass available at registration is a great idea, but blindsiding drivers isn't the right move.

The legislation would amend Michigan’s vehicle code, converting that optional purchase into a fee required of all applicants unless they specifically elect not to pay.

While the bill would offer motorists the opportunity to opt out, it isn’t very upfront about it.

Under the proposed legislation, the vehicle registration application form would have the fee clearly printed with a description: 

“$10.00 — Annual authorization to use this vehicle for unlimited entry into all Michigan state parks and recreation areas and DNR-operated state boating access sites. (Check the box below to select that option.)” 

Nowhere on the form, however, would it explicitly inform drivers that they can opt out except for the text next to an additional box that reads, “I elect not to pay this $10.00 fee.”

We are all for supporting state parks, but this law would turn state park passes into an involuntary and potentially unwelcome subscription. 

Bill sponsor, Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, defends his proposal by saying other states have tried similar measures and found them successful.

“Our state parks are in need of serious money for maintenance and improvements,” Howell told Michigan Radio.

Legislators, however, should not coerce drivers into buying passes. 

Trying to convince people that a state parks pass is worth $10 is fine. In fact, more residents should take advantage of this deal. But the DNR, in conjunction with the Secretary of State’s Office, should promote sales of the passes in an above-board fashion through marketing and advertising.

There’s nothing wrong with having a conversation about better supporting our parks. But if legislators want to do that, they should be honest and levy a tax.