Panhandling for parks

August 15, 2005

ELECTED officials love ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings. Such events help them get credit for brick-and-mortar victories in the pork barrel free-for-alls that pass for budgeting, especially in Congress.

This affinity for the new and flashy explains why a $286 billion transportation bill including nearly 6,400 such pet projects, costing $24 billion, came up more than a third short of the $1.6 billion President Bush requested to repair and maintain the long-neglected national parks.

Meanwhile, Congress mustered only one-tenth of the $600 million in additional annual operating funds parks need to pay rangers and other staff. Agitators for clean restrooms, safe trails and open visitor centers just don't have enough clout.

In fact, there is so little constituency for such routine expenses that lawmakers heartsick at the deterioration of America's treasured landmarks over the past decade are now promoting a scheme to plead for donations from taxpayers, asking them to tuck a little extra targeted exclusively for parks into their annual payment to the IRS.

Doubtless the scores of lawmakers co-sponsoring this legislation are well-intentioned, but it's too impractical to be enacted and creates the false impression that relief for the parks might be on the way.

Members of Congress are supposed to assess the country's needs and allocate funds according to agreed priorities. Of course, the process doesn't work as described in civics books. But if taxpayers are to be asked to shell out every time some program is treated unfairly in the budget, check-off boxes on tax reforms will multiply quickly.

We'd be more impressed if the lawmakers who call themselves the National Parks Caucus would preach and practice restraint at the pork barrel.

The ailing condition of America's down-at-the-heels parks offers a perfect example of what's wrong with handing out millions for projects that have never been assessed for their merit. Ironically, a lot of new parks get created this way, but then they become old news and their sponsors lose interest in fighting for funds to maintain them.

President Bush, who promised in 2000 to eliminate what was then a $5 billion backlog in park maintenance, has caved under congressional pressure for boondoggles.

That's no excuse to stick taxpayers with a double tab.

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