Prop 21 – Vehicle Fee for State Parks

(Image from


Proposition 21 – Establishes $18 annual vehicle license surcharge to help fund 21 state parks and wildlife programs. Grants surcharged vehicles free admission to all state parks. Initiative statute.

Measure Details:

  • Levies an $18 annual fee on all vehicles.
  • Walls off funds collected through this program for use “to operate, maintain and repair state parks and to protect wildlife and natural resources.”
  • Exempts commercial vehicles, trailers, and trailer coaches.
  • Allows free day-use entry to all vehicles subject to the fee

Arguments for Prop 21:

  • In past years, budget troubles have threatened to cut off spending on state parks to make up shortfalls. This proposition would create a separate “parks-specific” source of funding that wouldn’t be subject to budget woes.
  • Removing state parks from the budget process will free up existing budget money allocated to state parks for use in other areas like education.
  • It is important to keep our state parks maintained because they are a valuable resource both for California citizens and for bringing tourists to our state.

Arguments against Prop 21:

  • It sets a bad precedent to start imposing new taxes and walling off parts of our budget like this.
  • This is a regressive tax, representing more of a hardship for poorer families and a transfer from those who don’t visit the park to those who do.
  • Money from this $18 fee will not actually go towards parks, but will be shuffled around for whatever purposes politicians desire.

My Take:

Initially when I read about this measure, I thought it was a no-brainer. Do I want more money for state parks? Yes I do. So I should vote “yes” on Prop 21.

But it’s not necessarily that easy.

First off, I’m not buying the arguments that this money will not be kept for state parks, but will be redirected elsewhere. The measure language says very specifically that this money will be used for state parks and wildlife programs, with an allowance of up to 1% for administrative costs and the establishment of an oversight committee.

However, the article linked in the first bullet of “Arguments against” makes some interesting points that give me pause. This issue of walling off huge sections of budget worries me a bit, not because I don’t want the parks to have a reliable stream of funding (I do) but because of the precedent it sets for carving out programs from the general budget and establishing more walled-off minibudgets in the future. This is sort of a death-by-a-thousand-cuts argument: it starts with this $18 tax on cars, but maybe then there’s another proposal for some other worthy project, and another, and another, until soon these small costs have added up to a hardship for poor families.

That’s really my worry with this proposition, it’s regressive nature. It represents more of a burden to those struggling to make ends meet month-to-month than it does to me. Proponents might argue that these people would then get year-round access to the state parks, which would compensate them for their $18 fee. I’m not sure I’m buying that part of the argument, because I would guess (based on no data whatsoever, this is just my hunch) that state park use is directly (if maybe loosely) with income. If that’s true, then this $18 fee would essentially require low-income non-park users to subsidize park use by the more affluent, and I’m not necessarily a big fan of that.

However, I am not so confident in my postulated correlation between income and state park use. And maybe, if the Proposition passes, more low-income families will choose to patronize state parks because they no longer have to pay the day-use fees. So it could end up being a net benefit instead of the regressive tax that it seems.

I guess at the end of the day, for me, it really comes down to the idea of increasing the cost of owning a car as a way of funding environmental protection. That is an idea I can get behind, very firmly. I think that the American driving culture has significant pollution, noise, safety, and congestion externalities, and that increasing the cost of car ownership will move us closer to the socially optimal level of driving, which I believe to be much less driving than we (as a culture) currently do. So when someone asks if I want to charge car owners more to protect state parks and promote wildlife protection, I would have to say yes.

Especially because I don’t own a car. Only a bike.

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