OLYMPIA — A bill to eliminate the annual Discover Pass, a $30 fee to enter state parks and other public lands, is dead on arrival, 24th District state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege said.
The bill, SB 6174, landed Jan. 13 in Van De Wege’s Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee.
As committee chair, Van De Wege, a Sequim Democrat, said he will kill the bill, which is unanimously supported by the Forks City Council.
“I am not going to hear the bill,” he said Friday as lawmakers neared the halfway point of the legislative session.
Van De Wege’s 24th District Democratic colleagues Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles and Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend also were against eliminating the fee-based pass.
All three had positive views of legislation that would allow sports betting at tribal casinos such as the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s 7 Cedars Casino in Blyn. That bill passed out of committee Thursday.
The 24th District represents Clallam and Jefferson counties and the northern half of Grays Harbor County, where the Quinault Tribe-owned Quinault Beach Resort and Casino is located, in Ocean Shores.
Ron Allen, Jamestown S’Klallam tribal chairman, said Friday he suspects the Lower Elwha Tribe’s Elwha River Casino west of Port Angeles, the other Native American casino in Clallam and Jefferson counties, does not offer the class of gaming under which sports betting would be allowed.
Lower Elwha Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles did not return a call for comment on the legislation.
The Discover Pass, created in 2011 after most direct state funding was eliminated, charges access to more than 100 developed state parks, 350 primitive recreation sites, 700 Department of Fish and Wildlife water access points, 30 Fish and Wildlife wildlife areas, and 80 Department of Natural Resource natural areas.
“It has kept our parks open and expanded opportunities,” said Van De Wege, who is up for re-election in November.
“It is probably the Number 1 tool that is keeping our state’s homelessness problem out of public lands.”
The bill, he added, “is a ploy by Republicans just to get some media traction.”
Sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Ritzville Republican, the legislation also found little support from Chapman and Tharinger.
The state parks system was in serious disrepair when the pass was enacted.
Tharinger said the pass had “a rocky start” but has helped make the agency more self-sufficient, calling Schoesler “a headline grabber.”
Park visitation increased from 32 million in 2014 to 37 million in 2018, he said, adding that he does not support other legislation that would increase the fee to $35.
Chapman said he did not want to be forced to make budget cuts to state parks if Discover Pass revenues are lost.
“People would find their favorite state park would have reduced hours or be closed, and I don’t think the public would want that now,” he said.
At their meeting Monday, Forks City Council members unanimously approved a letter to Van De Wege asking him to support eliminating the fee.
“Removal of the requirement to have a Discover Pass could further aid in attracting new explorers or bring former outdoor enthusiasts back to our area,” the letter said.
Council member John Hillcar spearheaded the opposition to the pass.
He said it was meant as a temporary measure, an assertion Tharinger disputes, but the worst of it is that it affects DNR land, an abundance of which lies in the West End.
That’s created an impediment to users of DNR land in the area who could fuel the local economy.
Schoesler’s bill “would remove a restriction on access, and that’s a good thing,” Hillcar said Friday.
“I value state parks as much as everyone else,” he said.
He said Schoesler’s bill contained alternative funding measures and that the aim was not to gut the agency’s budget but to remove the funding burden directly from the backs of people who enjoy public lands in Forks and the rest of Washington.
“We do what we can out here for individual liberty and access to public land,” Hillcar said.
Of Van De Wege’s vow to kill the bill, “if that’s where he’s at, that’s where he’s at,” he added.
“We appreciate Kevin and the things he represents.
“From the base I connect with, he’s off the mark.”
Legislation to allow sports betting at tribal casinos “does have traction,” Van De Wege said, adding it would end up at the Ways and Means Committee, on which he sits.
Allowing sports wagering is “a fairly common request” made by constituents over his 14 years in the Legislature, Van De Wege said, adding this year holds “the best chance ever” for passage.
Van De Wege would not say if he supports the legislation.
Chapman said he does support it.
Constituents on both sides of the issue have concerns about gambling and the addiction some people have to it, Chapman said.
“We don’t not sell alcohol because some people have an addiction,” he said.
“We try to get them help.
“Gambling on casino properties has been more positive than negative, with job growth.”
Tharinger said he, too, supported allowing sports gambling in casinos.
He’s a co-sponsor of HB 2638, which passed out of the House Committee on Commerce and Gaming on Thursday.
Part of the revenue generated by sports wagering goes toward treatment, Tharinger said.
“You can look at a lot of things — alcohol, cigarettes, carbonated drinks — there are a lot of things people can get addicted to,” he said.
“Making policy around that is challenging, just on that point alone.”
Allen said the tribe is “very supportive” of legislation legalizing sports gaming.
“For us, it’s just another gaming venue,” he said.
“By making it legal, you bring it above ground and it’s more transparent and you have control it.”
HB 2638 includes a ban on sports gambling on Washington state college-level sports teams, although betting on college-level sports teams from outside of Washington state would be allowed.
“The universities felt more comfortable with it,” Allen said.
“They were worried there may be illegal mischief going on.”
If sports gambling is legalized, the casino would be connected to Las Vegas betting operations, “like a field station,” Allen said.
“None of the casinos in Washington state would be doing spreads.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].