State and Local Parks Funding Legislation Introduced
Rep. Hilderbran’s Bill, HB 6, Would Remove Cap on Sporting Goods Tax
Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) has introduced House Bill 6, the long-awaited legislation to address the serious problems with state parks funding and the local parks grants program administered by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).
The fact that a low bill number was reserved for this legislation until its introduction is a signal that this is a bill that is considered a top priority by the Texas House leadership (that is, by Speaker of the House Tom Craddick).
HB 6 would eliminate the current cap on the amount of money that may be appropriated to TPWD out of revenue from the so-called “sporting goods tax,” which is really the general sales tax collected on a variety of items sold in the state that are considered “sporting goods.” At present state law caps that amount at a total of $32 million a year in sporting goods revenue that may be appropriated to the state parks agency (and in the present, 2006-2007 biennium, the Legislature did not appropriate even that amount to TPWD, giving the agency only $20 million per year out of this source of funding).
In the current biennium, however, the State Comptroller estimates that the sporting goods tax is actually generating around $105 million per year. The most recent information from the State Comptroller’s office indicates that for the upcoming biennium, Fiscal Years 2008 and 2009, the sporting goods tax will actually generate about $112.5 million the first year and $116.6 million the second year.
The effect of lifting the cap through HB 6, therefore, would be to allow the Legislature to appropriate all of that additional revenue each year to TPWD for the state parks system and the local parks grants program. Even if the bill is passed, however, the Legislature would still have to appropriate the money to TPWD through the separate appropriations process in which the state spending levels are set every two years. HB 6 would only authorize all of the sporting goods tax money to go to TPWD.
State Parks Advisory Committee
The lifting of the sporting goods tax cap would be consistent with the final report and recommendations of a State Parks Advisory Committee created last year by Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Joseph Fitzsimons to assist the agency in developing ideas to address the critical shortfall in state parks funding and local parks grants monies that led to major cutbacks in state parks staff and park operating hours in late 2005. Former Texas State Senator (and former Chairman of the Texas Senate Finance Committee) John Montford, currently the President of AT&T, chaired the blue-ribbon body.
After several months of deliberation and an intensive review of state and local parks funding and options, the Advisory Committee identified the need for at least $85 million more each year in revenue needed by TPWD to meet the ongoing needs of the state park system (including maintenance, operation, acquisition of new parks in keeping with the agency’s long-range plan) and the need for a robust local parks grants program that can leverage local funds and meet the ever-growing demand for outdoor recreational opportunities at the local level.
The Advisory Committee recommended that these additional monetary needs be met by elimination of the cap on the sporting goods tax and appropriation of the full amount of that revenue to TPWD or by an increase in the cap in combination with revenue from state bonds issued for the benefit of TPWD park activities.
The Advisory Committee report clearly detailed the specific park program activities for which the additional $85 million was needed.
There have been some statements from public officials in recent days that indicate that while they are committed to provide more money for state parks they are not sure that TPWD could spend all of the revenue each year if the cap on the sporting goods tax is lifted entirely and all of that money is appropriated to the agency.
It is true that the most recent State Comptroller’s estimate of sporting goods tax revenue would generate about $10 to $11 million more than the total $105 million that the Advisory Committee felt TPWD needed from the sporting goods tax source (the current $20 million a year appropriation plus the additional $85 million noted above).
However, the monetary amounts suggested in the Advisory Committee recommendations were widely considered to be the minimum needed to get the state parks system and the local parks grants program back on track. Much more money is needed by TPWD to get state parks eventually to a “world class” level.
Another slight difference in HB 6 from what the State Parks Advisory Committee recommended is establishment of a new local parks grants program for the larger metropolitan areas, since there are often important differences between the needs and the funding abilities of large and small local entities with parks programs.
Fashioning criteria to determine eligibility and distribution of local parks grants to both large and small local governments in a competitive program is difficult. Setting up separate but related programs makes a good deal of sense. The Advisory Committee did not examine this prospect.
As of January 18, HB 6 already has 71 co-sponsors in the Texas House, and Rep. Hildebrand is aiming for at least 100 House members as co-sponsors (since HB 6 is a revenue bill, it must be passed by the Texas House first before going to the Senate, so all of the action at this point is on the House side).
Texans who support state and local parks are urged to contact their elected member of the Texas House and to urge him or her to co-sponsor this legislation if they have not done so already or thank them if they have co-sponsored the bill.