Legislators Support State Parks After Closures Threatened
Brazos Bend State Park near Needville, Texas. Photo by Timothy J. Carroll/Flickr, used via Creative Commons.
By Matthew Stottlemyre
For Reporting Texas
After initial budget estimates that would require up to nine state parks to close, key legislators have signaled support for a fully funded Parks and Wildlife Department this session and an overhaul of the way the department is funded in the future.
Years of fluctuating budgets have left the state’s parks with close to $500 million in deferred infrastructural needs, Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) told a house committee earlier this month. The hearing was considering legislation he filed to dedicate the state’s sporting goods tax to the Parks and Wildlife Department.
In an interview, Larson said an overlap with truth in budgeting efforts backed by Gov. Rick Perry this session may give his legislation the support it needs and head off future budget problems for the department. A budgeting “truth” policy would call attention to the state’s use of revenues from a 6.25% sales tax on sporting goods for its general fund even though the public approved the tax in 1993 thinking it would specifically fund parks.
“This is the year for parks,” Larson said.
The funding change the bill would bring if sporting goods tax revenue remains strong would be dramatic for the Parks and Wildlife Department. This biennium, parks would end up with 94 percent of the revenues or close to $187 million to spend, compared to the almost $52 million the parks get in the current version of the budget, said Parks and Wildlife executive director Carter Smith.
After Smith told the committee the department needs the additional funding and will be able to spend it, the questioning over Larson’s legislation focused on concern with the Legislature losing control over the parks department if its funding becomes guaranteed.
Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton), vice chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the Legislature has discretion over only 17.5 percent of the state budget. The rest of the money the state collects goes to dedicated funds, and Otto said he is hesitant to give up any more control over the budget.
“Pretty soon we’re not going to have to show up because the budget will already be written,” Otto said.
The 1993 law establishing the sporting goods tax capped appropriations to the parks department, but contrary to public perception did not require that all the money fund parks.
Subsequent changes to the law removed the cap, but also gave the Legislature freedom to use the money for general appropriations.
The highest percentage of the sporting goods tax the Parks and Wildlife Department has gotten was 60 percent, which was in 2010. Since the tax started, about a quarter of it has gone to the parks department, according to Legislative Budget Board documents.
Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville), chair of the committee, said the state passed the tax under the impression the money would go to parks and hopefully end the biennial struggle to secure parks funding at the Legislature. He said the state should be clear with taxpayers about where that money is spent.
“We want to have our oversight, but we also need to address this issue of truth in taxation,” Hilderbran said.
In his closing remarks during the hearing, Larson said he plans to amend the bill so that it ensures the Legislature retains control over its parks while still ensuring they are properly funded.
“We need to amend to make sure we have proper oversight, and we’ll figure out a model,” Larson said.
Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) filed companion legislation to Larson’s that has been cosigned by three other senators and remains in committee. Larson has filed two bills and a proposal for a constitutional amendment, each with the same basic goal.
In addition to Larson’s and Estes’ long-term efforts to secure parks funding, a year of statewide economic recovery is fueling support for adjusting this session’s preliminary budget so that all parks would remain open. Legislative Budget Board director Ursula Parks told the house subcommittee responsible for parks funding that the state will have a total of about $89.2 billion to allocate this session, $2 billion more than in 2011 and the first budget surplus since 2007.
Coming out of committee meetings during the last two weeks, two key budget writers, Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) chair of the Senate Finance Committee and Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) chair of the House finance subcommittee responsible for parks funding, have each publicly stated the department should be fully funded for the next biennium.
Mike Jensen, director of administrative resources for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said the department is encouraged by how the session has started and by the support from legislators. But with state budget cuts in recent sessions having already forced layoffs and reduced hours at some parks, Jensen said the department will not be satisfied that all the state’s parks are safe until it sees the state’s final budget.
“It is going to be a concern we have right up until we see the final conference bill,” Jensen said.
Despite the initial budget proposals that would require up to nine parks to close, neither parks department officials or legislators have started a process to determine which of the state’s 91 operating parks would close, Jensen said. When the legislature recommended the state transfer sites to municipalities last session, the Legislative Budget Board had an outside entity conduct a study to determine which parks to transfer, Jensen said. The Legislature has not started a similar process this year.
The preliminary house version of the budget would give the Parks and Wildlife Department similar appropriations as the last two years, but still almost $10 million less than the $160 million it received in 2008-2009. Jensen said the department needs close to $12 million more than the initial budget drafts give to continue operating as is.
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