Have you ever been to a state park in South Carolina?
I have. As a history buff, I’ve visited several of the Palmetto State’s excellent historic sites, such as Andrew Jackson State Park and Kings Mountain State Park. I’ve also relaxed or recreated at several South Carolina parks during trips to Myrtle Beach, where I have family, and Charleston, one of my favorite towns.
In virtually every case, I’ve paid an admission fee. I was glad to do it. For one thing, I feel responsible for paying for the costs I imposed and the benefits I received. For another thing, I know that properties primarily supported by donations and user fees are usually better-run and better-maintained that properties primarily supported involuntary “contributions” from uninvolved taxpayers.
I should say that I’m also a regular visitor to North Carolina historical sites and parks. My kids and I have toured the Alamance Battleground, watched an historical reenactment at the House in the Horseshoe near Sanford, and visited the Buncombe County birthplace of Gov. Zebulon Vance. We’ve stopped at Morrow Mountain and Pilot Mountain during family trips.
I enjoy North Carolina’s offerings, too, and would be willing to pay modest fees to maintain them (South Carolina’s fees are typically $2 for adults, with lower or no fees for seniors and children). But except for a few attractions, most North Carolina parks and sites don’t charge admission fees. (I’ve put cash in donation boxes when I’ve run across them.)
The two Carolinas operate their state park systems with very different assumptions and policies, as Bruce Henderson explained in a recent story in The Charlotte Observer. In North Carolina, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources administers the state parks, while the Department of Cultural Resources administers the historic sites. In South Carolina, it’s the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism that runs its state parks and historic sites, as a customer-oriented enterprise. Users and donors cover nearly 80 percent of the cost of South Carolina’s parks. In North Carolina, the comparable figure is reportedly just 20 percent.
During legislative deliberations over the 2011-13 state budget, North Carolina’s park system lost some tax funding, much like the rest of state government did. But its governing philosophy wasn’t changed. That’s unfortunate.
In a free society, the justification for government involvement in parks and recreation facilities is limited. Some argue, as economist Milton Friedman did early in his career, that because neighbors and passers-by derive benefit from the existence of open spaces, they should share some of the cost of maintaining those spaces through taxes. You can also argue that the environmental benefits of parkland and state government’s responsibility to keep and display state records and artifacts serve as additional justifications for some taxpayer expenditure on these services.
But those who actually set foot in state parks and historic sites clearly derive most of the benefits. They hike the trails, navigate the rivers and lakes, climb the mountains, visit the museums, explore the structures, and camp out under the stars. They shouldn’t force other North Carolinians to shoulder most of the cost for their enjoyment or edification.
Keep in mind that these services are not entitlements. Under all governments, residents are entitled to protection of their life, liberty, and property. Police and courts should never be fee-for-service enterprises. Similarly, in North Carolina access to public education is an entitlement guaranteed by the state constitution.
There is nothing in law or experience that justifies the North Carolina approach to state-parks management. South Carolina and other states that make greater use of user fees continue to offer their residents and visitors excellent facilities. I am aware of no evidence that these states attract few park patrons per capita than North Carolina, or that the economic impact of their parks in particular or their tourism industry in general is lower than in our state.
What’s more likely is that North Carolina taxpayers are being taken advantage of. Time for that to come to an end.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation