SACRAMENTO — Today, $18 can buy a couple of movie tickets, a decent bottle of wine or six gallons of gasoline.
In the future, that same $18 could buy a year's worth of strolls through wildflowers, visits to selected museums and prime beach parking.
Supporters of California's state parks took the first step Tuesday toward launching a campaign for the November 2010 ballot. They want voters to approve a mandatory $18 annual fee on most vehicle registrations, with the money going to the state parks department.
In return, in-state motorists would get unlimited parking at state parks and beaches - except for certain tours, such as ones at Hearst Castle and the Ano Nuevo elephant seals preserve in San Mateo County. Campgrounds, sites designated for off-highway vehicles and boat launches would still charge fees.
Motorists would park for free as long as their vehicle's registration tags are up to date. There would be no per-person admission.
It now costs $10 to park at most state beaches, including Silver Strand and Torrey Pines. It's $15 to wheel up to San Onofre State Beach.
Currently, frequent users can buy an annual pass for $125. The state also offers yearlong access for $10 to people 62 or older.
Having the initiative on the November 2010 ballot could put the park-fee issue in the middle of the broader race to replace Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has opposed the vehicle registration plan in the past. His administration, grappling with monstrous budget deficits, has imposed higher costs on visitors and padlocked some parks during low-use days.
More closures and higher fees are anticipated given the state's bleak fiscal outlook, some park supporters said.
With roughly 28 million vehicles in California, the $18 fee would raise about $500 million a year - more than enough to offset lost revenues from making parking free at most state parks. The surplus would be used to clear a backlog of repairs needed for trails and facilities, the measure's supporters said.
If approved, the fee also would end the need to use money from the state's general fund to pay for park operations. That could free about $130 million a year for other priorities, according to the initiative's backers.
Eighty-five percent of the new fee would go to state parks. The remainder would be divided among the state Department of Fish and Game, Ocean Protection Council, Wildlife Conservation Board and other park-related conservancies.
"In these trying times, it's essential we keep the parks open to protect a crucial economic engine for California," said Ruskin Hartley, executive director of the Save the Redwoods League.
But the ballot measure would likely encounter fierce opposition from those who believe the state already imposes too many taxes. In addition, some motorists will probably question why they should pay for something they don't use.
Those involved in the initiative campaign had considered making the fee voluntary, but abandoned the idea because it wouldn't raise enough money to fund maintenance projects at the parks.
The supporters, including the California State Parks Foundation, Nature Conservancy and Save the Redwoods League, filed the initiative with the state Attorney General's Office. That's a precusor to collecting signatures.
Backers of the proposal would need to gather 433,971 signatures from registered voters to qualify for the November 2010 ballot. The fee would take effect Jan. 1, 2011.
California's daunting budget crisis has punished the state parks department the past couple of years.
Last week, the agency said dozens of parks and campgrounds are closing on some weekdays, including facilities at Old Town San Diego and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Campgrounds at Cuyamaca Rancho and Palomar Mountain also will be closed during the winter months.
These cuts came on top of an earlier round of fee increases that boosted the cost of camping and parking at most of the 278 parks across the state.
Lawmakers, fearing public backlash over another car tax, have rejected similar fee proposals for state parks.