By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — Gov. Charlie Baker, after promising during his campaign not to raise fees as an alternative to tax hikes, will allow a series of fee increases to go into effect on Friday, hiking the cost of a camping trip, a day at the beach or an hour of skating.
Baker has decided not to try to reverse a series of fee hikes put in motion by the Department of Conservation and Recreation in the final days of the Patrick administration to help fund the agency that leaders said has been impacted by deep budget cuts during the recession.
The administration will also allow new rules regulating ride-for-hire services like Uber and Lyft to take effect, though a spokesman could not immediately say whether Baker intends to file the legislation necessary to give the Department of Public Utilities the authority to enforce the new driver and insurance rules.
The fee increases would raise the price of everything from parking at a state beach to renting a campsite in a state park or ice time for a youth hockey team. A season pass to state parks, currently the cheapest by far in New England at $35, would nearly double, but still not equal the most expensive in the region.
Baker campaigned on a platform of no new taxes or fees, but inherited what he believes to be at least a $500 million budget deficit that must be filled as he also prepares a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts in July. A senior aide to the governor said he does not view the DCR fees as a violation of the pledge. “No. They were promulgated by the Patrick administration,” said spokesman Tim Buckley.
As it prepared to recommend the fee increases, DCR held four public hearings across the state throughout November and December, receiving just 16 public comments on the proposal, including three at the final hearing in Boston on Dec. 29, a week before Baker took office.
The new fees were put on file with the Secretary of State’s office on Jan. 2 to take effect Friday.
Baker on Thursday imposed a temporary ban on new state regulations, with exceptions allowed for regulations that repeal “onerous” rules or which have public health or safety implications. The pause in the regulatory process will last until March 31, but will not impact regulations that have already been submitted and gone through the public comment process, according to the administration.
Under the new DCR fee scheme, a season pass to state parks will climb to $60 for in-state residents and $85 for non-residents, on par with what Vermont charges its citizens for park access in the Green Mountain state. New Hampshire charges $93 for a season pass to its parks, while Maine charges $70 and Connecticut charges $67.
Coastal campsite fees for residents would jump from $15 to $22 a day and from $17 to $27 for non-residents, and inland camping fees would climb from $12 to $17 a day for residents and $14 to $20 per day for non-residents.
Parking at state ocean beaches would double to $14 a day for non-residents, while residents could be newly charged up to $12 per day. Ice rink fees would also climb to $200 from $175 for 50 minutes of peak-hour skating time, which DCR officials said was still 35 percent to 40 percent below what a private rink charges for ice time.
A spokeswoman for DCR said the agency saw its budget for parks cut from a high of $102 million in 2008 to $72 million in 2010. The fiscal 2015 budget allocated $85.5 million to the department.
A DCR spokesman did not respond to a request for an estimate of how much money is expected to be generated by the new fees.
“Our mission is to protect, promote and enhance natural, cultural, and recreational resources. These fee increases will help the agency, and the Commonwealth, continue to provide residents and visitors with the highest quality state park system in New England,” DCR spokeswoman Lauren Feltch said in an email.
Feltch said fees in Massachusetts for parks and recreation are at the low end of the median when compared with other New England states. Money generated from the new fees will be used for capital improvements, staffing costs and maintenance and operating expenses.
“These proposed increases are aimed at maintaining our State Park system while providing low cost recreational opportunities for residents and visitors,” Feltch said.
George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said DCR budgets and funding for environmental protection have been disproportionately cut over the years, with spending in those areas accounting for less than 1 percent of the state budget.
“DCR, parks and recreation deserve adequate funding. For those who can’t afford exotic vacations flying off by jet, parks, pools and campsites are their vacation and they deserve that,” Bachrach said. “Fees are not our first choice. Adequate state funding is our first choice, but our last choice is the disposition of state land to private parties, which is where we’re headed.”
Bachrach noted DCR’s plan to lease Daly Field, seven acres of green space along the Charles River in Brighton, to Simmons College because the state can’t afford to renovate the field. “Once you’ve given land away, you’ve given it away,” Bachrach said.
Baker, at a debate with Attorney General Martha Coakley during the gubernatorial campaign, responded to a question about fees by promising not to raise them. When Coakley asked if he was “signing that in blood,” Baker responded, “I’m not going to raise fees.”
Former Gov. Mitt Romney, who like Baker campaigned against raising taxes, took some heat during and after his time on Beacon Hill for using fee hikes on services as a way to generate additional revenue for the Commonwealth without breaking his tax pledge.