Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to close most of California's state parks has received copious amounts of ink recently. And there is no doubt that the state is facing severe budget problems. But the state-parks-closing plan would only save California's general fund about $150 million at a time when it's facing a $24 billion crisis. In other words, shutting down most of the state's beautiful parks will solve less than 1 percent of our problem. Which makes one wonder whether Schwarzenegger is serious about the idea, or is he simply using it as a scare tactic in order to coerce both Democrats and Republicans back to the bargaining table? After all, conservatives love our park system just as much as liberals do. In fact, it's about the only thing in the budget that's apolitical, and so the threat of closing the parks may be the best way to goad both sides into negotiating a new budget agreement.
There is no doubt that closing state parks will be extremely unpopular, especially in a steep recession. Going camping or simply spending a day at one of California's 279 parks is one of the few cheap and fun things that most people can still afford these days. Cutting off access to the parks, as a result, will surely cause an uproar. The question is, however, whether the threat of closing the parks will convince conservatives to support tax increases necessary to help balance the budget? It's a tough call, since Republicans, including the governor, view the defeat of last month's budget compromise measures as a repudiation of tax hikes.
At the same time, Democrats need to make spending concessions too. Even the governor's budget goes too lightly on state workers. For instance, why not institute work furlough days, just as city and county governments, not to mention private businesses, have done up and down the state. It would be much better to close state offices more often than to shut down parks or cut off essential programs for the poor. As for state workers' salaries, the governor is proposing a 5 percent cut, which again, is far too small to deal with California's massive problem. We're in tough times, and the pain needs to be shared.