Three years after Washington’s Discover Pass program was implemented, revenue from sales of the pass continues to grow.
The pass, which is a user fee for vehicle entry into public lands such as state parks and natural resource lands, brought in an average of $13 million a year during its first two years. But during the fiscal year ending in June 2013, the pass program brought in $16.8 million – an increase of about 29 percent.
Despite January 30 - February 6, 2014 the growth in revenue, the pass is still not bringing in enough money to make up for budget cuts that have occurred over the past few years, said Parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter. And the program is still falling short of the agency’s original revenue projections of $27 million per year.
The pass program was implemented in 2011 after state lawmakers slashed the budget for state parks.
"It is the thing that helped keep the parks open," said Painter.
If the trend continues, pass revenue in its fourth year should be even stronger. But the parks system has a long way to go to make up for the over 50 percent in cuts to its budget from the general fund during the height of the state’s budget crisis as the economy faltered in 2008.
The percentage of State Parks’ budget that was from the state’s general fund dropped from over 60 percent in 2007 to 30 percent in 2008. For the 2011-2013 biennium it was at 12 percent. That number continues to drop and is now at about 7 percent. Overall, State Parks has seen a $26 million shortfall since 2009.
In his 2014 proposed supplemental budget, Gov. Jay Inslee suggested a 2.3 percent overall increase to the Parks’ budget, or $2.9 million. But there’s still a notable gap.
The significant decrease has put maintenance and operations of many parks at risk, Painter said. They have reduced staff and made a lot of positions seasonal instead of year-round.
"It's not sustainable, long term," she said.
The commission is looking for ways to increase revenue, such as increasing the number of places where someone can purchase a Discover Pass.
Motorists can now purchase a Discover Pass at the same time that they renew their tabs at the Department of Licensing (or online), and at pay stations in various parks where people can use credit and debit cards.
Discover Passes can be purchased as an annual or daily pass. With all fees included, annual passes are $35 and daily passes come out to $11.50. They are required for all vehicles in all state parks. But they are not required for people entering the park on foot.
Also, Park Manager Tom Pew at Millersylvania State Park near Olympia stated that annual passes start from the date of purchase, not from January to December.
Some park users think that the $30 fee is more than reasonable.
“I’d pay more if I had to,” said Otto McElbain, a disabled veteran who has been homeless since last August. He camps in Washington state parks with his dog, “Big Boy” frequently. He has two passes, the Discover Pass and a five-year disability pass that gives him 50 percent off the camping fees.
Eighty-four percent of the revenue generated by Discover Pass sales goes to State Parks. The Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Natural Resources split the remaining 16 percent.
There are several pieces of proposed legislation this year that aim to make changes to the Discover Pass program.
Some bills include discounts and reduced pass prices for disabled veterans and people who buy other recreational permits. One bill would waive the fine for not having a Discover Pass visible on a vehicle if that person can show they had one at the time the citation was given.
Currently, the fine for not having a Discover Pass visible on a vehicle in a state park is $99. Under current state law, a person who is cited but can prove within 15 days that they do have a current Discover Pass would pay a reduced fine of $59.