By Kevin Yamamura
Published: Sunday, Jul. 24, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

As he packed boxes of camping supplies after a five-day vacation at Folsom Lake, Daniel Maningas said he was torn over whether state park fees are too high.

Campground fees of $30 a night are reasonable, he said, especially compared to flying to Hawaii. But the $10 day use fee is so steep that Maningas said he parks his truck for free off state property when he rides his mountain bike in the Bay Area.

“You’re there only a couple hours, and you’re going to pay $10?” said Maningas, a transmission mechanic from American Canyon. “That kind of hurts in the pocket.”

To help navigate through tough fiscal times, California has relied on fee increases on everything from parks to universities, shifting more of the cost burden away from taxpayers and onto program users.

Democrats blame higher user fees on GOP opposition to taxes, which allowed tax rates on sales, income and vehicles to drop this year. They say Republicans are achieving their goal of a smaller government.

“The only other opportunity for revenue is following a different philosophy, which is the user pays through user fees,” said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “We no longer care about the common good.”

Republicans say the state has enough existing tax revenue to support programs and have pointed to nearly $12 billion in unexpected tax revenues that helped plug the deficit this year.

Taxpayer groups contend it is appropriate to require park users and other program beneficiaries to bear higher costs, rather than taxpayers at large.

“In the general sense, a trend toward fee-based service is a good thing from a fiscal conservative’s perspective because, if nothing else, it forces the government to try to quantify the value of a service and the cost of a service,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

The trend toward user fees isn’t new, though it is more prevalent in the midst of economic downturns. State and local governments have turned to fee increases ever since voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, which limited property taxes and mandated a two-thirds legislative vote requirement for tax increases. Fees can be approved with a majority vote.

Groups such as Coupal’s have fought to tighten the definition of fees. That occurred most recently in last year’s Proposition 26, which narrowed the conditions under which lawmakers could approve fees.

The bulk of state spending goes toward K-12 schools, prisons and health and human services, which defy fee-based budgeting. To solve this year’s $26 billion deficit, Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers relied mostly on program cuts and unexpected spikes in revenue.

But state leaders are always on the lookout for ways to recover costs with a service fee.

In a signing message attached to a new $150 fire fee on rural homeowners, Brown wrote, “A fee consistent with the ‘beneficiary pays principle,’ such as the one intended in this bill, can achieve significant General Fund savings.”

Big hike in higher ed fees

The most glaring example of recent fee hikes is in higher education. Students at California State University and the University of California face tuition hikes of about 20 percent over last year. Community college students will pay $10 per unit more this fall.

Some contend California had room to increase fees after historically providing more generous subsidies than other states.

Nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor said that even with recent hikes, UC fees are competitive with peer institutions, while those at CSU and community colleges remain cheaper than elsewhere. He said his office has supported fee increases but that they should occur at a slower pace and with more notice.

Because of the way financial aid works, the general belief is that low-income families will still be spared from tuition hikes, while upper-income families can afford to absorb them. Alan Auerbach, an economist and tax expert at UC Berkeley, said that “as unpopular as higher tuition is, if we think about the subsidies implicit in very low tuition, some relatively affluent people are benefiting from it.”

But Jean Ross of the California Budget Project, which advocates for low- and middle-class residents, said some families will get squeezed.

“The real concern is if there are people above the income eligibility level for financial aid but for whom the cost of going to CSU or UC is still prohibitively high,” Ross said.

Without a bipartisan budget deal, general taxes on sales, income and vehicles fell this year for Californians. Republicans said last month that lower taxes equal about $1,000 for the average family, though that figure varies depending on income, family size and spending habits.

Yet Californians have seen increases elsewhere over the last decade.

The state has ratcheted up park fees, most recently in 2009. In 2001, visitors paid $3 to park at Beal’s Point in the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area; they now pay $10. In 2001, camping was $12 a night; it is currently $30 in the summer.

Even higher fees aren’t enough to help parks survive; the state intends to close 70 of its 278 parks later this year.

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