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Lawmakers Asked to Boost Parks Funding

State parks are crumbling under the weight of decades of deferred maintenance. Lawmakers and state officials say they desperately need a funding boost from the 84th Legislature — and not just for the next two years.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Boca Chica State Park in Brownsville, Texas. 

Garner State Park, 1,800 acres of Hill Country with a spring-fed river and numerous hiking trails, is the most visited Texas state park. Incredibly popular with campers and boaters, it drew more than 275,000 people in 2013. 

But its future is threatened if the aging water or sewer services fail, which has happened before. And that's true in many of the state's 95 parks, which are closing more often because of hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance over recent decades. 

Lawmakers and state officials say the state's parks badly need a funding boost from the 84th Legislature — and not just for the next two years. 

"We're running from crisis to crisis in terms of trying to put duct tape and bailing wire on a problem that needs a whole lot more," Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, told lawmakers at the Capitol Tuesday during a hearing of the House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee.

Most Texas state parks were built by President Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and the last major renovation effort came in the 1970s. Since then, park facilities haven't been updated much. 

That includes homes for on-site staff. "We've got staff that are living in 40-year-old mobile homes in parks across the state," Smith said. "You simply can't recruit folks to come and live in those conditions." 

On top of that, the state has nearly 50,000 acres acquired through donations or purchases sitting unused because there's no money to turn them into parks. A big chunk is in the West Texas Chinati Mountains, inaccessible by public road. But thousands of acres in the Palo Pinto Mountains and abutting the beloved Devils River don't have access problems, and are simply waiting for funds.  

Most of the department's money is supposed to come from the "sporting goods sales tax." In 1993, lawmakers began funding parks using a portion of that revenue, and raised the portion to 94 percent in 2007. (There's no actual sporting goods tax; using national survey data, the state estimates each year how much sales tax was generated from the sale of certain sporting goods.)

But — as is the case for many other designated funds in Texas, like those meant for roads — instead of dedicating all of the required money to parks, the Legislature stockpiled some of it to artificially balance the budget. The department has lost some $200 million in the past five years to stockpiling. Now it's asking for the money back to meet urgent needs, including $75 million to repair crumbling facilities. 

So far, it's not looking likely the Legislature will deliver. "The House budget makes it a priority to use more of the sporting goods sales tax for state parks," said Jason Embry, spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus. But the initial House budget simply directs an extra $60 million from that tax revenue to the department. That doesn't mean parks funding is higher; it just means the accounting is more transparent. And Gov. Greg Abbott's budget only mentions parks in a proposal to fund border security efforts at Texas Parks and Wildlife with $13.4 million. 

During Tuesday's committee hearing, Smith said the department needs money for policing in other areas, not just the border. And he listed some of the most pressing priorities for repairs: Washington-on-the-Brazos park, where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed, has lost air conditioning in some buildings. The electricity was out completely for five months last year in Dinosaur Valley State Park, a short drive from Fort Worth, where visitors can follow old dinosaur tracks. And in Abilene, the state has had to close one of the few area pools. 

"You're not willing to say it. I will," state Rep. Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican, interjected during Smith's testimony. "It's embarrassing that our parks system is in the condition that it is, and I think we're culpable for that."

Larson and Democrat Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, who chairs the committee, have both filed legislation that would make sure 94 percent of the sporting goods tax revenue collected in the next biennium actually goes to parks. So has state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls. 

The three have also proposed a constitutional amendment that would prevent the Legislature from stockpiling money meant for parks in the future. That would be much harder to pass, since amendments need two-thirds approval from the House and Senate, and then approval by voters in November. 

"It's tough," said George Bristol, chairman of the Texas State Parks Advisory Committee and a longtime parks champion. "At least we've had some encouragement to put it out on the table and see if we can put it all together, so we're going to try." 

Bristol and Larson said that given the complaints from far-right members of the Legislature and influential groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation about a lack of budget transparency, there is more momentum to end diversions once and for all. 

“Anybody that serves in the Legislature, if they do nothing else the rest of their term in office, this will have an impact for families in Texas for centuries to come," Larson said. 

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was a corporate sponsor in 2012.  A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

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