While much of the funding for Texas’ state parks that was cut in 2011 has been restored in the 2014-15 budget plan, an initiative aimed at helping local parks is poised to come up empty for a second straight legislative session. But advocates are hoping to change that.
During a news conference Thursday on the Capitol grounds, members of environmental groups, outdoor education organizations and lawmakers touted the need to restore funding for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Local Park Grant Program, which matches funds for the upkeep and restoration of community parks. Grants are awarded for local projects on a 50-50 matching basis and are submitted to Texas Parks and Wildlife for approval by local nonprofit organizations and municipalities.
Since 1979, the program has invested more than $390.2 million in matching grants for 1,630 local projects throughout the state. But it was suspended in 2011 during a time of budget woes.
Senate Bill 1 places the local parks grant program at $15.5 million for the biennium, but as a second priority. This means that the program is currently not funded, but could be added when the budget is reconciled between the House and Senate.
Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy organization, said funding should be restored this session because the state has funds available to keep the grant program alive.
“Even when times are bad, our parks are not something we should sacrifice,” said Metzger. “But it is a totally different situation now. Two years later, our budget is in a much healthier position.”
State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, who was also at Thursday's news conference, said it was time to bring “truth in taxation” and use funds to bolster the grant program from a sales tax on sporting goods, which was originally intended to fund the parks system. He criticized the diversion of funds away from parks as a “budgeting gimmick.”
“We need to be honest with our taxpayers who believe they are paying this tax and the money is going to our parks system,” he said.
Villarreal pointed to projections of Texas’ population growth as a reason for placing resources into local community parks. He said the population is expected to grow about 22 percent every decade, and the parks system must keep up with the growth to make sure all citizens have access to the health benefits a community park can facilitate.
“Look at how fast our population is growing. … Our parks are not growing at nearly the same pace,” he said. “Accessibility is declining and access to parks for our young families is shrinking.”
Facing a multibillion-dollar shortfall in 2011, the Legislature cut about $150 million from the state parks budget in 2011, for a total reduction of 21.5 percent. But this session the budget situation was far less dire, with Comptroller Susan Combs announcing a surplus that would allow lawmakers to restore much of the funding to state agencies affected by previous cutbacks. Advocates said doing the same for the local parks grant program would have a clear payoff.
Joe Kendall, executive director of Texas River School, an organization that provides outdoor educational experiences for underserved Texas children, said that the organization had previously received the grant more than 12 times. He said that after the grants were cut in 2011, they had to turn to local nonprofits to raise funds for programming costs. But the local parks grant was essential because it could provide equipment funding.
“If we are going to be able to support our parks system, we need to have then new blood, the young kids getting involved,” he said.