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by Jay Gallagher

Friday, March 5, 2010

Public pressure paying off for parks

Those of you who have been protesting proposed state-park closings should know that you’re having some effect.

Several lawmakers said this week they’re getting more mail on this issue than anything else. One, Sen. Hugh Farley, D-Niskayuna, Schenectady County, flatly predicted that money for the parks will be restored to the budget and that none will be closed.

Gov. Paterson has proposed closing 91state parks and 14 historic sites (about half the total) as part of his plan to close a $9 billion budget gap for the fiscal year that starts April 1.

The closings would save a relative pittance - a mere $11 million out of a state budget of $134 billion - and obviously would raise the ire of the millions of people who visit them annually.

It’s not yet clear how some parks would actually be closed. It’s easy to drain a swimming pool and lock up historical sites, but you can’t fence in woods or block hiking trails. Enforcing such closures would likely cost more than keeping them open.

There are several theories about the politics of the plan. First is that parks to most people in key positions of power in the state mean Central Park in Manhattan or Prospect Park in Brooklyn - not Letchworth or Saratoga or Thatcher. State parks are not such a big deal in New York City, where top state leaders reside and the city runs the big parks.

Another is that the parks cuts will be a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Legislature. Restoring the money for the parks will allow the lawmakers to look like heroes to their constituents, at a minor cost to the state treasury.

That might make it easier for Paterson (or whoever is governor by the time this is resolved) to get lawmakers to agree to bigger cuts in areas where there is real money involved, like health care, education or closing prisons.

It’s clear that the more pressure applied by the public, the less likely park closings will actually happen.

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