MARSHALL COUNTY, AL (WAFF) - Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley spoke at Lake Guntersville State Park on Monday to a large group of residents concerned the park would be shuttered in advance of massive budget cuts.
The state faces a general fund crisis and officials say 15 state parks are slated for closure through the end of the 2016 fiscal year due to budget shortfalls. Four of those parks are in north Alabama.
During his speech, Gov. Bentley was adamant that if the parks were to close, it would not be his doing.
"I'm not closing Guntersville State Park," Bentley told the crowd. "However, if the budget that has been presented to the legislature is voted on and adopted, the legislature will close the park."
Bentley has threatened to veto any budget that contains massive cuts. Instead, the governor says Alabama needs to raise taxes. In his speech, he mentioned implementing a cigarette tax and raising the automobile sales tax from 2% to 3%.
"The way I have designed it, this would solve the problem for years to come," Bentley said.
Gov. Bentley added that legalizing gambling in the state would not solve the issue.
"Gambling is not going to solve this problem," said Bentley to scattered applause. "It does not create enough money."
Bentley warned attendees not to lose sight of the issue at hand, saying the problem is with how the state budgets. He said once the budget problem is figured out, lawmakers will be able to solve the state's other issues, including the parks and mental health funding.
The current legislative plan will take $11 million out of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources budget - $10.4 million of that money is used to fund state parks.
Senator Steve Livingston and Representative Nathaniel Ledbetter urged calm, telling the group the legislature has yet to come up with a budget and they will be working to make sure money is there to keep the parks open.
They also said it would be a bad business decision to close them.
"Alabama brings in over $11 billion in tourism revenue," said Rep. Ledbetter. "I'm sure the state parks are half of that driver."
The four north Alabama parks that are scheduled to be closed are Joe Wheeler, Desoto, Buck's Pocket, and Lake Guntersville. Lake Guntersville, which is the largest, draws thousands of people to the area each year. There is no word on closure times for Wheeler, Desoto, or Guntersville, but Buck's Pocket is set for closure May 1.
Alabama State Parks System Director Greg Lein said Monte Sano and Cathedral Caverns are not on the closure list.
Legislators said the budget would have to be passed by the end of the session in June.