Saying that diverting funds earmarked for state parks compromises the integrity of the state budget and the quality of parks, some legislators are looking to end the practice.
State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, has filed Senate Bill 175, which would eliminate the diversion of funds from the sporting goods tax, which according to state law is supposed to go toward parks.
“I’m an outdoors guy myself,” Estes said Thursday at a news conference. “It’s important that we maintain all of our parks. It preserves our Texas heritage, and it needs to be carefully guarded not only for us but for future generations.”
State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, filed similar legislation, House Bill 162. He noted that several parks are years behind in maintenance because they haven’t been getting money intended for them from sources like the sporting goods tax and state parks license plates.
In the current state budget, $184 million pegged for parks was diverted to help balance the overall budget.
The diversions from parks are a small part of almost $5 billion that has been diverted from dedicated funds like those for clean air and trauma care. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, filed Senate Joint Resolution 24 on Thursday, which would propose a constitutional amendment prohibiting the diversion of statutorily dedicated revenue. He said he is excited to see bipartisan support for the effort to eliminate diversions, including from park funds.
“One of the things we love so much about [Texas] is our state park system,” Watson said. “Texas can do better. For far too long, our parks have been victims of debt, diversion and deception used to balance our Texas budget.”
The preliminary versions of the House and Senate budgets for 2014-15 include funds for 84 state parks – meaning the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would have to close seven parks. The department’s executive director, Carter Smith, said he is ready to work with legislators to ensure all parks stay open.
“With the budget process just beginning and many members expressing a genuine willingness to help address the park funding issues that we have that are very real, I remain optimistic about what the outcome will be,” Smith said.
Conservation activists are also hopeful. Janice Bezanson, the executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance, said parks have faced funding cuts and closures in previous sessions, but legislators have always found a way to continue funding parks and wildlife programs.
“State parks are a big deal to an awful lot of people. It’s one of the few places for outdoor recreation for people who can’t afford expensive trips,” Bezanson said. “Parks are essential to maintain the quality of life that we enjoy.”