State Parks Funding Alert – May 14, 2007
With only two weeks left to go in this session of the Texas Legislature some key decisions on funding for the Texas state park system remain to be made. Thanks to public input and intense lobbying by parks advocates, progress appears to have been regarding money for local parks grants and funding for major repairs at state parks.
There are at least three key issues yet be resolved, however, and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, presiding officer of the Texas Senate, is in a key position to decide the outcome on those matters. The three key issues are as follows:
(1) Neither the House nor the Senate versions of the appropriations bill (HB 1) provide sufficient funding for state park operations, and some of the money allocated to this category in the Senate version is based on an unrealistic forecast of how much additional revenue may be generated by state park entrance and facility fees over the next two years.
(2) Neither the House nor the Senate versions of the appropriations bill (HB 1) provide necessary funding for acquisition of new parkland or land adjacent to existing parks where opportunities to expand those parks through purchase of land from willing sellers would enhance the appeal of state parks.
(3) Although the House has passed legislation to lift the cap on the amount of sporting goods tax revenue dedicated to the state parks system and local parks, the Senate has yet to act to lift the cap despite the fact that 22 out of 31 senators earlier signed on as co-authors of a bill that would do just that.
Regarding money needed for state park
operations: The State Parks Advisory Committee recommended $100 million for the 2008/2009 biennium (the next two state fiscal years) for state parks operations (personnel, operating expenses, minor repairs, and support equipment).
The Senate version of the appropriations bill by contrast would allocate only $24 million for those purposes, and $16 million of that would be contingent upon the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (Parks & Wildlife) raising that much money from state park entrance fees and park facility fees WITHOUT being able to raise individual fees.
In other words Parks & Wildlife would have to generate enough additional visitors to state parks in two years, eliminate any special discounts (for scouts, schools, children), and somehow collect more money after standard park operating hours in order to raise that $16 million that would be appropriated to the agency.
Thus, the $16 million has been described by some as phantom money. Solid amounts of new money need to be allocated to state parks operations to avoid future cutbacks in park hours and services.
Regarding money for parkland acquisition: The Parks & Wildlife land and water conservation plan adopted with considerable public input a few years ago called for the acquisition of at least four new state parks of 5,000 acres each close to urban areas to meet the outdoor recreation needs of a growing population in a state with relatively little public land.
Also, at the present time there are opportunities to purchase adjacent land from willing sellers at several existing popular parks that would enhance dramatically the appeal of those parks (and likely boost visitation to those parks!).
The Senate version of the appropriations bill, however, provides virtually no new money for land acquisition for state parks.
Regarding lifting the cap on the sporting
goods tax revenue: State law caps the amount of revenue generated by the sporting goods tax that may be appropriated to Parks & Wildlife for state parks and local parks grants at $32 million a year.
For 2006 the Legislature has only appropriated $20 million of that to Parks & Wildlife. However, the sporting goods tax generates in excess of $105 million a year.
Lifting the cap on the amount of sporting goods tax revenue that may be allocated to Parks & Wildlife and then actually appropriating that money would solve the major problems with state parks and the local parks grants program.
Moreover, it would send the signal to future Texas Legislatures that adequate funding for parks needs to be provided each session.
As revenue from the sporting goods tax increases over time, parks funding would increase.
The Texas House has passed HB 12 to lift the cap.
Although many parks advocates are concerned about the provisions in HB 12 that would transfer a number of historical sites from Parks & Wildlife to the Texas Historical Commission, those provisions do not need to pass.
The provisions lifting the cap do. Early in the legislative session, 22 Senators co-authored a bill to do just that.
It is time for the Senate to take action to lift the cap.
The focus for citizen action on parks funding needs to be on the Senate at this time because reliable reports indicate that Speaker of the House Tom Craddick supports full funding for parks in the appropriations conference committee and has so directed House conferees to push for that funding.
Thus, the pivotal leader on the parks funding issue is Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, who presides over the Texas Senate and who exercises enormous influence over the action of state senators, such as those who serve on the House-Senate conference committee on the appropriations bill.