SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker wants to give the state's senior citizens a financial discount on camping in Utah state parks, shaving 50 percent off the price for overnight stays.
Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, is runningSB48, Camping Fees Amendments, after a constituent of hers suggested the idea.
Across the state, 11,665 residents hold senior day use passes and would be able to camp for $15 a night at any of Utah's 43 state parks that offer overnight camping, according to the bill. Senior day passes cost $35 for people 62 and older and are good all year.
"If you live on a fixed income like our seniors do, what would it mean to them to be able to enjoy our wonderful state parks that we have available?" Escamilla said. "I think the argument is compelling since we are doing better with our economy."
The proposal would eliminate $875,000 in revenue from the Utah Division of State Parks and Recreation, revenue Escamilla said would have to be made up with a general fund appropriation.
"I had a great meeting with them," she said. "This is obviously not in the governor's budget. … I don't expect them to pay for it."
Scott Strong, the division's deputy director, said that over the past five years, the division has collected an average of $4.4 million a year in camping fees. Those camping fees are also subject to state and local sales tax, generating a half-million dollars — most of which is deposited into the general fund.
Last year, the division collected and transferred $1.8 million in local and state sales tax revenue.
In the midst of the Great Recession, the parks division suffered a 59 percent reduction in general fund money in 2011-12 and was scolded in a legislative audit over its operational expenses.
Since then, the division has embraced a business model that transformed state parks into self-sustaining units, with the exception of so-called "heritage" parks, golf courses and This Is the Place State Park, which is run by a private foundation and gets an annual $1 million appropriation for care of its facilities, according to Strong.
"The parks endured massive reductions," Escamilla said, recalling the cuts. "I applaud them for what they have been able to do."
Escamilla said there is some concern that if seniors get a discounted camping rate, other groups may jockey for a similar discount, which would be weighed on the merits.1 comment on this story
"I think any opportunity to provide some way of thanking our seniors for all they have done is a good investment," she said.
State park visitation, like national park visitation, is experiencing dramatic increases.
In fiscal year 2018, 6.7 million people visited state parks, compared to 4.4 million in fiscal year 2015.
Jordanelle State Park, as an example, attracted 105,000 people in July 2015, compared to 159,000 last July.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Committee, but has not yet had a hearing.