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State park visitors can skip the change

In 2015, desperate to try to balance an out-of-kilter state budget, something that has become an annual event, the legislature voted to impose a state tax on the state fees charged to drive into state parks. It had to be one of the worst decisions that ever came out of the state General Assembly — and that’s a high bar.

Most fundamentally, it was unfair.

In many states, state parks are free. This makes sense given that the citizens collectively own the parks and are assessed taxes to maintain them. Yet one can make a valid argument for assessing parking fees, since this directs the cost of operating the parks to the people who use them.

But it was outrageous to then add the 6.35 percent sales tax onto the fee. It was arguably triple taxation — the state assesses taxes to pay for state services, including its parks; it demands a tax (parking fee) to enter the parks; and it places a sales tax on the entry tax.

It was also a logistical nightmare.

Rather than charging a nice round number to enter the parks, allowing collection booth attendants to quickly make change in paper bills, the new policy forced them to count out coins. The weekday state-resident parking fee at Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme, for example, was $9.57 rather than $9.

Not surprisingly, this did not speed up the long lines of traffic that besiege Rocky Neck and Hammonasset State Park on summer days and particularly weekends. Susan K. Whalen, Deputy Commissioner for Environmental Conservation at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said on a typical weekend day about 400 pounds of coins had to be hauled to the collection booths at these parks to make change for visitors.

Why would any lawmaker in their right mind have passed this policy? Legislators said later they did not know they had done so. General Assembly leaders had stuffed it into the “implementer bill” during a one-day, mid-summer special session to try to patch the budget. There was confusion over what parking fees the state was preparing to tax.

The good news, said Whalen in a recent interview with The Day, is that the legislature in the 2016 session removed the sales tax. Her agency immediately implemented the change, not waiting until the start of the fiscal year July 1. It will make life easier for booth attendants and park patrons alike this weekend, the unofficial start of the summer season.

So instead of paying $13.83 this weekend to enter a shoreline state park, residents will pay $13. Weekend state resident entry fees for inland state parks drop from $6.38 to $6. The highest parking fee is assessed to a non-resident entering a shoreline state park. It drops from $23.40 to $22.

Connecticut residents who want a season pass good at all state parks and forests will pay $67, down from the $71.25 when Connecticut added in the sales tax.

The best deal is the The Charter Oak Pass, available free to Connecticut residents who are 65 years of age or older. The lifetime pass provides free access to the state parks and forests and is accepted at all areas where a parking fee applies. Presenting it allows free access for the entering vehicle and passengers. The pass holder does not have to be the vehicle driver. The passes are available at Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park in Groton, and Fort Trumbull State Park in New London.

The bottom line is that a genuinely asinine law has been repealed, meaning that when you visit state parks this summer, don’t worry about bringing change.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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