Well, here’s another good idea we’ll never hear again

Earlier this week, State Auditor Doug Hoffer issued a report suggesting that the state is getting shorted on leases of public lands to ski areas. The long-term leases were negotiated in the Good Old Days, when ski areas were not much more than trails, lifts, and lodges. And they reflect that; lease payments are based on lift ticket sales.

Simpler times.

Simpler times.

Today, ski areas are ski resorts — with myriad amenities and all-season activities. Lift tickets are a small part of the whole. You could argue that that’s because of investments by private-sector operators; you could also say that none of it would exist without the public lands. The AP’s Wilson Ring put it this way:

The [Auditor’s] report says that inflation-adjusted lease payments to the state declined by 14 percent between 2003 and 2013, but property near the ski areas increased in value by about 150 percent, and meals, alcohol and room taxes have increased by between 40 percent and 61 percent.

Parker Riehle of the Vermont Ski Areas Association scrambled to justify his industry’s bargain-basement leases.

“The better that those sales are and the better that the ski rates are on state land the better that the lease payments are to the state,” Riehle said.

Is he really trying to tell us that rock-bottom leases are more lucrative for the state than reasonably-priced ones? Like the supply-side assertion that lowering taxes will increase revenue? How well does that work, Sam Brownback?

Of course, Riehle was reaching deep into the bottom of his rhetorical barrel; he also claims that the leases have led to the preservation of land and wildlife.

Yes, big expensive resports are nirvana for the ecosystem.

Hoffer doesn’t necessarily recommend trying to reopen the leases; he just wanted to provide information and raise the question.

It’s a very good question, with the state’s budget circumstances so tight that Gov. Shumlin has proposed leasing prison space to the feds (which will keep more state inmates in out-of-state for-profit prisons) and placing a three-year moratorium on the Current Use program, among many other things, to generate new revenue. His administration is effectively searching all the sofa cushions for spare change.

Nonetheless, it’s safe to assume that Hoffer’s report will be quietly shelved. Michael Snyder, Vermont’s Parks and Recreation commissioner, says the state’s hands are tied until the leases expire.

That strikes me as an awfully defeatist attitude. The state does hold the ultimate hammer — it’s our land, after all — and could force the ski resorts to reopen the deals if it wanted to.

Of course, ski resort operators (Bill Stenger, come on down!) are very well-connected people with top-shelf representation at the Statehouse and deep pockets for campaign contributions. I can just hear Our Lawmakers issuing heartfelt paeans to One Of Vermont’s Iconic Industries, a Bedrock of Our Vital Tourism Sector, and pooh-poohing any talk of Reneging On Agreements Made In Good Faith.

Too bad, ’cause if Shumlin’s budget is any indicator, we could really use the money. The resort industry has it to spare. And I’d say we deserve a fair return for the use of public property.

But naah, it ain’t happening. Better luck with your next report, Doug.

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