Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Hammonasset Beach State Park (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT—Advocates for the recently approved Passport to the Parks program, which charges residents a $10 fee and gives them free parking at state parks and beaches, want to make sure the money is being used appropriately.

That is why the Appropriations Committee last week was asked to tinker with the language of the bill to ensure that money isn’t swept away into the general fund.

“The intent of the Passport program when it became law very clear,” Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, said in an interview after the hearing. “The money is supposed to be spent on the parks. We just want to make sure that’s still the case.”

Hammerling submitted written testimony saying as much to the Appropriations Committee.

It said, in part: “Millions of Connecticut residents who this year will gain access to State Parks for free, enjoy all of the State’s campgrounds, and have a safer experience thanks to the additional resources now available for critical seasonal workers such as lifeguards.”

The program will allow Connecticut residents with valid state license plates to park for free at state parks, in exchange for paying a $10 fee when renewing registration, or plate transfer through the Department of Motor Vehicle every two years.

Out-of-state vehicles will still be charged parking fees, ranging from $7 to $22, depending on the park and time of day. Fees to reserve overnight campground sites for both in-state and out-of-state visitors will still apply.

In his written testimony to the Appropriations Committee, Hammerling asked the committee to: 1) keep the Passport as a non-lapsing account, and 2) remove or delay diversions from the Passport to the General Fund.

Hammerling said after being heard on the issue he believes the committee understands – and agrees with – the goal of not sweeping funds meant for parks.

Appropriations Committee Co-Chair Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague said that it is also the committee’s intent to have the funds raised for the parks and beaches spent for the parks and beaches.

“The Passport to Parks program was well received. We just need to clean up some language that is put in the final budget,” Osten said.

In Hammerling’s testimony, he said: “When you established the Passport to the Parks as a separate, non-lapsing account – an account that would not be tied to the problematic timing of the state’s fiscal year – we and many others cheered. This is good!”

But Hammerling went on to tell the committee that Governor Dannel P. Malloy’s budget makes the Passport program “an appropriated fund rather than the non-lapsing account you wisely created.”

“This would take away the benefit of flexible timing necessary to manage Parks and Campgrounds effectively, and it would also put the Passport at greater risk of being swept or raided by the Governor. That would be bad,” Hammerling said.

The governor’s budget for fiscal year 2019 anticipates the program generating $11.5 million.

In his own testimony in front of the Appropriations Committee, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert Klee tried to allay concerns that money collected from the program would be used for other reasons.

“Our Connecticut state parks are an economic driver for our state and the communities they are located in,” Klee said. “When people visit our state parks they also visit local restaurants, shops, local farms and even the occasional brewery.”

Klee added: “Therefore, it is important we continue to invest in and maintain our parks and the new Passport to the Parks program helps to provide a consistent funding stream to support them.”

The DEEP commissioner said the program “also allows us to give more back to the public that has now invested in our park system:  increased lifeguards and trail maintenance; shoulder season camping for opening day of fishing and into the fall foliage; longer hours at our museums and nature centers.”