By Glynn Wilson –
The poor people of Alabama are being hoodwinked by their government, again. And it seems every conservation and environmental group in the state and a few decent newspapers are being taken in too.
The issue is Amendment 2 up for a vote to change the Alabama Constitution, again, on the Nov. 8 presidential election ballot. In the absence of the political will to rewrite the constitution, voters are left with no choice but to deal with these amendments in every election cycle. Bad law inevitably results.
The Montgomery Advertiser and the Anniston Star have editorialized in favor of a yes vote, taken in apparently by groups such as Conservation Alabama, which has also influenced the state Sierra Club and other groups to come out in favor of it. Even E.O. Wilson is for it, according to Ballotpedia.org.
The purpose of the amendment is supposedly to protect funding for state parks from pesky legislators, who have been siphoning off funding for the state parks in recent years, allegedly forcing the governor to close five parks. But if the supporters of the state parks wanted to do that, they should have gotten someone to write a simply worded, straightforward bill to do that. But that’s not what came out of the Republican Legislature in Montgomery.
Just take a look at how Ballotpedia summarizes the bill. This is a fool’s choice between privatizing the parks and keeping the funding — or losing the funding. No doubt about it. This is a political threat wrapped up in law. Vote no.
A “yes” vote supports this proposal to prohibit reallocating state park funds for other uses and allow the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to contract with non-state entities for the operation and maintenance of land and facilities that are part of the state park system.
A “no” vote opposes this proposal, allowing the Alabama State Legislature to continue to move funds from the state park budget to other uses and maintaining the constitutional requirement that only state entities can operate or maintain property in the state park system.
That looks simple enough, right? But it’s not so simple. The Ballotpedia summary continues:
From 2011 to 2015, the Alabama State Legislature reallocated $15 million from the state parks budget to the general fund, and soon after five state parks closed and other parks limited their services and hours of operation. All park reserve funds were exhausted as well. After negative public reaction to five parks closing in 2015 and intensified lobbying efforts by Alabama State Parks Partners, the legislature proposed this amendment to ensure that future state park funds would not be allocated to other uses. About 86.5 percent of the state parks budget comes from guest fees, with about $7.6 million of the $37 million annual budget coming from taxes.
The second provision of Amendment 2 concerns contracting out the operation and maintenance of state park land and facilities to non-state entities. Amendment 2 was designed to provide exceptions to the state constitution’s requirement that all property within the state park system be run by state entities.
Now, according to former commissioner of Conservation and Natural Resources Charley Grimsley, who was appointed by Democratic Governor Jim Folsom Jr. in 1993 and served until Fob James appointed a new commissioner in 1995, the proposed change to the constitution is like a “Trojan horse.”
“Hidden inside is something you probably didn’t know. Amendment 2 would allow state park privatization, and turning our state parks over to private corporations is something we should never do,” he said in an op/ed piece in the Newhouse blog al dot com. “This means that if Amendment 2 passes, we would be voting to hand over our state parks, land, lodges and all, to private corporations.”
Grimsley, along with former Lt. Governor Bill Baxley, have long been advocates of the parks and helped fight off a plan by former Governor Bob Riley to build a private taj mahal in Gulf State Park. I wrote the definitive piece on it at the time.
Now Grimsley says the Republican politicians want to implement Amendment 2 like they did with the Hilton contract for the luxury hotel, now being constructed at Gulf State Park, questionably using BP oil spill lawsuit settlement money that was supposed to go for conservation purposes.
“They will lease the parks without competitive bidding,” Grimsley says. “The companies would charge you whatever they want, and many people would be priced out of our state parks forever.”
Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, he said, the state leased the major state park lodges to private companies.
“The experience was an abysmal failure,” he said. “The companies made millions, but because they did not properly maintain the facilities, at the end of the leases we the people inherited state park lodges that were in a terrible state of repair.”
So to fix this mess, in 1998 the people approved Amendment 617 of the Alabama Constitution that authorized a $110 million bond issue to renovate the state parks — with the express condition that privatization of the renovated parks could no longer happen.
“But now that we are on the hook for a $110 million bond issue caused by the first privatization mess, with Amendment 2 the politicians are asking us to jump right back into the fire by privatizing them again,” Grimsley said. “State park privatization was a bad idea the first time, and it is a bad idea now. On November 8, Vote ‘No’ on Amendment 2.”
In an interview and an email exchange with me, Grimsley said the “corporate lust to takeover public parks is not limited to Alabama.”
He’s got that right. Look at the story we just published on over commercialization and privatization of the national parks.
“Amendment 2 is just the Alabama metastasis of a national cancer of corporate greed that is even attacking the National Park System,” Grimsley said. “I laughed out loud when I read Parks Director Lein and Bob Baumhower’s al dot com op-ed and heard them say it’s not ‘privatization’ but rather ‘corporate partnerships.’ That’s like when Hilton got a privatization contract for the new Gulf State Park hotel without competitive bid. If Amendment 2 passes, I predict we will see a ‘corporate partner’ named Baumhower’s Restaurant coming soon to a state park near you. I’m sure the contract will be awarded through a ‘competitive process.’ Right.”
When I asked Grimsley about the support for the amendment from groups like Conservation Alabama, he said the conservation groups may know a thing or two about conservation policy. “But they are terribly naive when it comes to politics,” he said.
Once the private contractors get their hands on the state parks, he said, it may take 99 years to get rid of them.
Similarly, former Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley, who also helped fight off Riley’s taj mahal, has written against a yes vote on Amendment 2.
Baxley accused the Governor Robert Bentley of burying a “poison pill” in the fine print of Amendment No. 2 that will privatize our state parks.
That is, he said, “unless voters read, understand and reject it.”
“Our governor has mounted a tremendous “PR” campaign (paid for with state money) to prevent Alabama voters from realizing exactly what’s wrong with proposed Amendment No. 2. Why? Because a $110,000,000 bond issued that Alabama voters approved in 1998 (this bond money has already been spent on state parks) specifically requires that they not be privatized,” Baxley says.
“The reason for this is that ordinary and average Alabamians will be shut out of hotels and golf courses at our state parks by high fees they cannot possibly afford,” Baxley says. “Out-of-state corporations have found Bentley’s ear on this, and these corporations exist, purely and simply, to make money. To them, wealthy out-of-state visitors to our state parks are a ‘target market,’ and nobody pushing Amendment No. 2 seems to care that state parks exist only for average Alabamians to enjoy, not to become private enterprise clubs that only the wealthy can afford.”
“Alabama voters were wise on Nov. 3, 1998, when we approved Amendment No. 617 to the Alabama Constitution, allowing the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to borrow $110,000,000 repaid by the State of Alabama on the express condition that privatization of these parks not occur,” Baxley continues.
He said amendment 617 provides that all state park facilities shall be exclusively operated and maintained by the Department of Conservation and Natural resources, not private chains like Hilton Hotels that are free to price average Alabama residents out of them.
“Gov. Bentley’s desire to repeal Amendment No. 617 is appalling,” Baxley said. “Preventing out-of-state private corporations pricing us out of our own state parks is what he should be doing, and what a NO vote to Amendment No. 2 on Nov. 8 will do.”
The New American Journal Editorial Board stands with Grimsley and Baxley and advocates a big, fat NO vote on Amendment 2 Nov. 8. While the weak state environmental groups say there is little choice to protect state funding for the parks but to accept this devil’s compromise, we say that’s not true. Vote down this thinly veiled scheme to privatize the parks and fight for more funding for state parks in future legislative sessions.
The Democrats in Alabama are totally silent on this issue, showing their complete weakness to say or do anything with any effectiveness to fight the total Republican dominance of public policy in this state.
If there was a candidate with any balls out there, I suspect you could get elected to statewide office as a Democrat on issues like this. The Forever Wild legislation allowing the state to acquire and preserve undeveloped land got more yes votes than any Republican or Democrat running for office in Alabama in the past 35 years.
Negotiating from a position of weakness is no position at all. The public is looking for people to take bold stands, not hide in the shadows and play along with those who manage to get into power on the argument that government does not work. The Republicans prove on a daily basis that any government they try to run surely doesn’t work. But what are the people to do if there are no Democrats willing to take a stand?
Our advice? Vote NO on Amendment 2. Shut it down decisively, and vow to take the fight directly to the Legislature when they try to rob the state parks of more money in the years ahead. That’s the only real choice. Compromising with the devil will never get you anywhere in this life.
© 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.