State lawmakers use discretion to park funds elsewhere
The San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department operates the city’s recreational and cultural programs and maintains, according to its website, 244 city-owned parks including swimming pools, gymnasiums, cemeteries, sports facilities, recreation centers and the Botanical Garden and Conservatory. The department is responsible for the maintenance of 14,524.83 acres of park land, including more than 118 miles of walking, hiking and biking trails.
A 2013 statewide poll conducted by Hill Research Consultants shows that 84 percent of Texans see state parks as essential to healthy, active lifestyles, and 85 percent of Texans acknowledge a need to protect our natural areas.
Despite this large showing of public support, the State Legislature has left the park system struggling to gather funds to adequately maintain and operate these integral facilities.
Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) requested an additional $11.2 million for the operation of state parks in the 2014-2015 budget. Senate and House budgets ultimately allocated only an additional $6.9 million in funding. Staff at the Legislative Budget Board interpreted these figures to mean seven state parks could close.
In 1993, state lawmakers passed a measure that devoted a portion of sporting goods sales tax to the parks system. This measure seemed to be a move in a positive direction for TPWD, but in 1995, lawmakers put a cap of $32 million per year on parks spending while revenue from the sporting goods tax rocketed past $100 million. This funding also fell short as state appropriators maintained ultimate discretion in the allocation of the sporting goods tax.
In a Texas Tribune Festival panel on Sept. 28 Carter Smith, executive director of TPWD, noted that, “In 2007, the legislation called for Texas Parks and Wildlife to receive 94 percent of sporting goods sales tax, (but) the legislature reserved that authority for themselves, and we receive typically 30-60 percent.”
State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, has fought in the legislature to stop this funding diversion and allow the parks to receive the funding that they need to operate. “We’re getting closer to utilizing the full amount of money allocated for parks.” Rep. Larson stated in the Sept. 28 Texas Tribune panel. “We are trying to eliminate the diversion.”
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Susan Combs projects this sporting goods tax fund will generate $265 million over the coming 2014-2015 biennium, more than enough money to adequately fund our state park system.
TPWD only received approximately one-quarter of the sporting goods sales tax revenues for the 2012-2013 biennium. Also at the panel, George Bristol, Chairman of the State Parks Advisory Committee, stated, “2 billion dollars has been raised by the sporting goods tax since it began and only 600 million has been used for parks.”
The 2013 Hill Research poll also shows strong support for using the sporting goods sales tax to fund state parks. Seventy-six percent of respondents support using revenue from the tax for “Acquiring, maintaining & operating state & local parks.”
As Texas lawmakers wade through budgetary issues that have much more divisive implications, it seems unfortunate that they have failed to follow through with such a widely supported allocation that would only improve Texans’ standard of living.
The State Legislature should be embarrassed that Texas ranks last nationally in state park land and per capita funding for state parks, and TPWD officials are many times left to search for private funding in order to keep state parks open.