Ron Olson's Challenge
As the budget situation grew more dire, Olson put his staff to work searching for funding options. They learned that Missouri parks receive a percentage of the state sales tax, Texas charges a tax on sporting goods for parks, and Florida's system gets money from a real estate transfer tax. But the concept that immediately caught Olson's attention was Montana's license plate registration system. Every time they renew their vehicle registrations, state residents pay a $4 fee that gives them free access to the state parks. After talking extensively with the Montana parks staff, Olson's leadership team identified that system as its preferred choice.
Olson took the idea to a support group he'd organized, the Citizens Committee for Michigan State Parks. The members endorsed the plan, and last December they presented the license plate proposal to a special legislative work group set up to review options for long-term funding ideas for the Department of Natural Resources. Following the presentation, committee members met with lawmakers to seek potential sponsors. Ann Arbor Democrat Rebekah Warren agreed to lead the effort in the state house and Saugatuck Republican Patricia Birkholz in the senate. The "Recreation Passport Funding Legislation" is co-sponsored by Rep Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) and Sen. Raymond Basham (D-Taylor), making it an extraordinarily bipartisan bill.
"Part of the reason why they did this is because they want to ensure the parks system, through this license plate package, will be able to continue stimulating tourism," Olson explains. Tourism is the third largest industry in the state-and one that, unlike the auto industry, is growing rather than shrinking.