With the unofficial start to summer on Memorial Day weekend, Connecticut legislators are looking at a creative way to save state parks from budget cuts, closures, and restricted services.
Funding for Connecticut's 110 state parks and 30 state forests comes from the state's general fund. And like most line items in the state budget, it's having to do with less as the state grapples with a multi-billion-dollar deficit.
Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, said Connecticut's state parks are hamstrung by budget cuts.
"So we're already going into the summer with four campgrounds closed," Hammerling said. "We also know that there were recently 12 park maintainers who were pink-slipped, leaving only 35 park maintainers to cover 110 state parks."
According to the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, Governor Dannel Malloy's proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 cuts $1.5 from a fund that pays for maintenance and improvements at 18 state parks.
For fiscal year 2018, the governor proposed cutting $6.4 million from state parks and instituting "passive management," which provides staffing for only a handful of state parks. The rest of the parks would have little or no maintenance on-site.
"Without taking care of our assets, we quickly lose them," says Democratic State Senator Cathy Osten. "They become uninhabitable places and unenjoyable places."
Earlier this year, Malloy requested all state agency heads to submit cost cutting ideas.
The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which oversees the state parks and forests, suggested the state adopt a "Passport to the Parks" program. The program would fund state parks and forests, as well as fish hatcheries and other DEEP programs, by adding $10.00 to the $80.00 vehicle passenger registration fee.
In return, vehicles with a Connecticut license plate would be able to park at any of the state parks for free. Currently, a state park season pass costs $67.00 a year for Connecticut residents.
The governor did not include Passport to the Parks in his budget proposal, but now a bi-partisan group of concerned lawmakers are supporting the Passports to Parks idea, seeing it as the creative solution needed to get state parks back to full strength.
"It provides an opportunity for the people of Connecticut to enjoy, for a very small fee, every state park in our great state, and it's time to do things differently, and make sure our state parks thrive," said Republican State Senator Paul Formica, whose district includes Rocky Neck and Harkness Memorial State Park .
Legislators believe the program would bring in $10 million a year.
Out-of-state cars would still have to pay the parking fee, and the program would not apply to camping fees. Fourteen other states have similar programs.
Clarification: An earlier version of this report said the program would fully fund state parks. The state said it would not.