OKLAHOMA CITY — As officials move closer to implementing state park entrance fees, several lawmakers want to exempt certain Oklahomans from paying.

Proposed legislative measures would exempt foster families, military veterans and those who live in communities near state parks from paying the new admission fees expected later this year.

State park officials noted they wouldn’t know the price of admission until they select a concessionaire to provide and maintain the hardware, equipment and software for their planned automated web-based fee collection system.

Officials expect to publish the new fees in March, but said visitors will pay per vehicle rather than per person, according to a question-and-answer memorandum released to CNHI Oklahoma. 

Vehicles with Oklahoma plates will get a discount.

The state will not use gates or attendants at park entrances. Instead, they’ll rely on park employees to enforce payment. When visitors pay, they will input a license plate number. Employees will cross-check license plates against a real-time list of paid visitors.

Some parks — including Roman Nose — will remain free. Others with free admission could include Alabaster Caverns, Little Sahara, Black Mesa, Grand Lake’s Bernice, Cherokee and Spavinaw entrances, McGee Creek, Sequoyah Bay and Talimena. It will continue to cost money to enter the cave at Alabaster Caverns and the dunes at Little Sahara.

Officials said the admission fees are necessary because of decades of maintenance underfunding. The current state parks capital budget of $12 million is well short of the $40 million needed to maintain the park system. If the state can’t come up with another $28 million in revenue each year, officials warn they will have to close parks.

Oklahoma’s state parks draw about 9.3 million visitors a year. Only two states that border Oklahoma don’t charge admission fees, park officials said. Arkansas and Missouri pay for their park system through a tax on sporting goods and associated things like boat sales.

Still, several lawmakers said it’s critical to exempt certain Oklahomans from paying for admission.

Existing law exempts those 62 and older from admission fees, though Oklahoma officials are allowed to set rules establishing different fees for that age group.

State Rep. Johnny Tadlock, R-Idabel, said he’s worried his constituents will be priced out of Beavers Bend State Park.

Tadlock is proposing that Oklahomans not pay for admission if their primary residence is located within the same House district as the park.

“I am going to be very passionate about getting this bill done for my folks up here,” he said.

Tadlock said his legislative district is poor. Sometimes the only family activity people can afford is visiting state parks.

“To most people it would not seem like very much, but to take a dollar out of the pockets of any working folks here… I’m just adamantly opposed to that,” Tadlock said.

He said McCurtain County residents approved a lodging tax, which they use to market the region and draw in guests from surrounding states. In return, residents always have had free access to Beavers Bend and grown up with the expectation that the park would benefit them too.

“I’m just adamantly opposed to charging local folks any fee to enter (a local state park),” Tadlock said. “If (a park) is not in their district, they’ll pay like everyone else.”

State Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, meanwhile, wants to ensure veterans can enter parks free of charge.

He said Oklahoma veterans already get free admission to state museums, but recreation officials want to ensure the benefit would extend to the park system as well.

“They didn’t want to start depriving veterans of a benefit that they’d had,” Simpson said.

Department of Human Services leaders, meanwhile, want foster families to have discounted admission, said an official with state Sen. Brenda Stanley’s office.

The Midwest City Republican filed a proposed law to expand exemptions to current foster families.

"In doing so, foster families will be given additional opportunities to experience the beauty and tranquility of nature right here at home," said Casey White, a spokeswoman with the Department of Human Services.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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