Editorial: At state parks, seniors should pay
Geezers have been freeloading long enough. As of today, senior citizen discounts are outlawed. Graybeards and bluehairs have to pay full price, just like everyone else.
Happy April Fools Day. The preceding paragraph is false. What’s true, however, is that a bill has been filed that would end the venerable practice of letting senior citizens use New Hampshire state parks free of charge, a policy that’s also extended to people with disabilities, legislators, executive councilors, active duty military members and their families, National Guard soldiers and retirees, and Blue Star mothers with a family member in the armed forces.
The change, one we support, is not as drastic as it sounds. Residents age 65 or older will be able to purchase an annual pass to state parks for $20. The pass will allow seniors free entrance to the 38 state parks that charge an entrance fee and let them continue to ski or snowboard for free at Cannon Mountain on weekdays. The legislation, sponsored by Hampton Republican Sen. Nancy Stiles, appropriately eliminates the state park freebies for members of the Legislature, Executive Council and governor and their staffs, but leaves the policy unchanged with respect to other groups now allowed to use the parks gratis.
Fairness, the needs of the badly underfunded parks system, and demographic realities justify the change. The parks system is chronically short of money. It is the only state parks system in the nation that’s expected to be self-funded, a goal that may be impossible to meet unless park prices are increased to a level that puts them out of reach for many.
A 10-year plan for the parks system developed in 2008 identified $750,000 in immediate needs to replace worn-out equipment, $28.5 million to catch up with deferred maintenance in the plan’s first five years, and $71 million over the decade to replace and redevelop park facilities. Compared with that, the money raised by reducing senior discounts is small. Stiles estimates that if 40 percent of the senior citizens who now use the state parks frequently purchase a pass, it would raise about $300,000. That estimate is probably low. A survey done for the 10-year plan found that 12 percent of the system’s frequent users were age 65 or older. By 2030, that figure will be 29 percent, largely because, as the report said, “expectations and behaviors for those over 65 are changing.”
No self-funded system can be expected to survive when one-third of its users pay nothing. In time, in order to keep prices affordable for the young and economically struggling, the discount given seniors will have to shrink.
Free use of state parks by seniors is the rule in New England, but discounts in most states are less generous. Half-off is a common approach.
Senior discounts came about in an age when a majority of older Americans were poor or nearly so. That’s not the case today, though many are struggling. The demise of the defined benefit pensions, flat wages and poor saving history of many in the baby boom generation has led economists to predict that, while roughly half of the baby boom generation will have at least an adequate income in old age, half will live in poverty. At least one state, Washington, uses an approach that may someday be appropriate in that situation, Washington’s allows free use of state parks and half-price camping, mooring and boat launch fees, but only for seniors in households with an income below $35,000.
While it won’t be popular with seniors who get a free ride now, that policy is one that New Hampshire lawmakers should consider down the road.