"Sorry, we're closed." In one of the saddest signs of the times, this message is popping up all across the country, as governors and legislators are cutting off funds (and shutting off access) to one of the finest, most popular assets owned by the people of our country: state parks.
More than 6,600 of these jewels draw some 700 million visitors a year to their grand vistas, historic sites, abundant wildlife, majestic forests, cascading waters, expansive beaches, nature trails, campgrounds, educational centers and lodges. Parks are a tangible expression of America's democratic ideals, literally a common ground for every man, woman and child to enjoy, learn, absorb ... or just be. Especially for the middle class and the poor — the great majority of our people who can't jet off to luxury resorts for a getaway for vacation — these spaces offer a form of real wealth, something of great value that each of us literally "owns," knitting us together as a community and nation.
Yet so many spiritually shriveled, small-minded and short-sighted state officials are snuffing out this invaluable, uniting social force. They are stupidly treating parks as nothing but a budget number or a piece of the "nanny state" to be axed in the name of ideological purity. Worse, they are sacrificing parks in order to keep the tax-dodging moneyed elites who pay for their campaigns from paying even a dime more in taxes.
The majority of states have been closing many of their parks, slashing hours and services at others or simply handing the public's asset to profiteering corporations. Idaho's governor has proposed eliminating the entire parks department; California shut the gates of a fourth of the state's parks last year; officials in Arizona and Florida intend to privatize their parks; Washington state has cut off most of its park funding; and Ohio has okayed oil drilling in its parks to replace state financing.
As Woody Guthrie said of outlaws, "Some'll rob you with a six gun/Some with a fountain pen." This is theft by the in-laws, the political insiders who're stealing The People's property — stealing from America itself.
Check out the robbery in my state of Texas. Things tend to be bigger here — bigger hair and hats, for example, bigger money and egos ... and bigger thievery by political con men.
Last year, the gang of GOP hucksters who control our state government pulled off a huge heist, covering it up with an equally huge boast: "We balanced our budget. Not by raising taxes but by setting priorities and cutting government spending," bragged the gang leader, Gov. Rick "Oops" Perry. How'd they fill the $27 billion shortfall that they themselves had created by their previous budgetary mismanagement? By stealing money from already poorly funded programs — from education to parks — that ordinary Texans count on.
People here are justly proud of their 94 parks, but many of these treasures are now understaffed, open fewer hours and in disrepair because the system's budget was whacked by 21.5 percent in order to spare the wealthiest families and corporations in this enormously rich state from paying a teensy bit more in taxes.
But that was only part of the robbery. A state sales tax on sporting goods, dedicated by law to help finance the people's parks will generate about $236 million this year and next. But the governor and his legislative henchmen raided this pile of revenue, filching two-thirds of it for the state's general fund so they could claim that they "balanced our budget (without) raising taxes."
To replenish some of the tax money taken by The Perry Gang, the head of parks for the Great State of Texas is now engaged in a shocking spectacle: public begging. In a video played at 11 December press conferences in state parks across Texas, the chief of a major state agency is reduced to shaking a tin cup, pleading for $4.6 million in donations. "Please act now to help keep our state parks open for all Texans to enjoy," he beseeches.
These right-wing politicians howl that they want to shrink government — but they are the shrunken ones, and the narrowness of their vision is diminishing what it means to be American.
To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.