By CAROLINE BECK Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A constitutional amendment that would allow the state to borrow $80 million to improve state parks passed its first vote in the Alabama Legislature on Wednesday.
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Christopher Blankenship told Alabama Daily News that the bonds would be used to expand and improve campgrounds and recreational areas.
“As we’ve seen this past year with COVID, state parks and outdoor recreation have been extremely important to people for their physical and mental health,” Blankenship said. “We saw great increases in usage at our parks, and also the federal wild properties in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.”
Blankenship told the Senate and House General Fund budget committees on Wednesday that attendance was up about 1.2 million for a total of 6.2 million visitors to state parks last year.
Alabama voters approved a $110 million bond issue in 1998 to help improve state parks and historical sites. House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, says now that that bond issue is almost paid off, the state can enter into this new one.
“Because interest rates are so low today, we’re able to use the same amount that we’re paying out now, redo new bonds and put $80 million into the existing parks, which is going to be a tremendous asset to our state and to our tourism and across our state,” Ledbetter told ADN.
House bills 565 and 573 are the constitutional amendment and enabling legislation sponsored by Ledbetter. They passed the committee on Wednesday with no opposition. The Senate bills, 362 and 383, also passed committee with no opposition.
Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, sponsors the Senate version of the plan, which has 24 co-sponsors. He said the bond issue is about making the parks self-sufficient and providing amenities that will give a return on investment.
“We feel as though making these investments will lead to even more improvements that can be made in a quicker amount of time and will bring in even more visitors and more money to the parks so that they can continue to do that over and over,” Scofield told ADN.
An amendment was added to both House and Senate bills that would allow any potential overage on the bond issue to go to various properties operated by the Alabama Forestry Commission.
A fiscal note on the bill says the bond issue would increase General Fund spending by about $5.5 million per year for 20 years, but House General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, explained that it really isn’t an increase since it is replacing the bond issue that has now been paid out.
A brochure provided by the ADCNR lists their renovation plans, which include expanding campgrounds, modernizing day-use areas, adding cabins or swimming pools and providing internet connectivity to overnight accommodations.
Blankenship said the renovations will provide capabilities for modern-day desires.
“To bring them up to a standard that people have come to expect now and as the landscape is changing with motor homes and they’re becoming more advanced and require more from our campgrounds,” Blankenship said.
State parks are not funded by the State General Fund, but rather through fees. They generate 80-90% of their revenue directly through entrance, rental, lodging, golf and other recreational fees.
From 2011-2015, around $15 million was transferred from the parks budget to the state general fund and in 2015, five state parks had to shut down due to lack of funds.
In 2016 Alabama voters approved a constitutional amendment that would prevent future reallocating of state park funds for other uses in the state’s budgets.
Scofield said in committee that the amendment passed in 2016 has helped with maintenance costs of the parks but is not able to provide the necessary funds to make the renovations they want to make in a quick enough manner.
“Money is staying in the parks system but it is just slower than anticipated,” Scofield said.
There are 21 state parks in Alabama that have an estimated $375 million economic impact for the state, according to the ADCNR brochure.
If the constitutional amendment is passed by both chambers then Alabama voters will likely vote on it in the 2022 election.
Scofield, who has three state parks in his district, said his constituents support improving the parks and he believes Alabama voters will approve the bond issue easily.
“Our parks play an important role in making sure that we are providing outdoor activities for the citizens of Alabama, even though you might not have a state park located in your area, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one near for a day trip,” Scofield said.
Since it’s a constitutional amendment, Gov. Kay Ivey does not have to sign off on the bill. However, Ivey Press Secretary Gina Maiola told ADN that Ivey supports the initiative.