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House panel debates state parks funding

A measure that would've guaranteed a set amount of funding to state parks was upturned in 2015. Lawmakers and advocates are hoping similar legislation will stick this session.

Boca Chica State Park in Brownsville, Texas. 

After a push to increase funding for state parks failed in 2015, a House panel revisited the issue on Thursday, with some lawmakers and advocates hopeful a similar proposal to boost funding for parks — and guarantee future funding passes this time.

The House Appropriations Committee took public comment on House Bill 78 by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City. The legislation would ensure that almost all of revenue generated by the state’s “sporting goods sales tax” would go to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to fund the operation and maintenance of all 103 state parks and historical sites in Texas. 

The Legislature created the tax in 1993 to fund portions of the department and the Texas Historical Commission, later stipulating that up to 94 percent of generated revenue would go to parks and up to 6 percent to the historical commission. But lawmakers have hoarded much of the tax revenue, often using part of it to balance the state budget.

The state comptroller's office estimates the sporting goods tax will generate $333.5 million in revenue during the 2018-2019 biennium, meaning the department would receive $313.5 million in revenue if Guillen's bill passes. Meanwhile, the parks department is facing a $100 million shortfall.

The Legislature in 2015 passed similar legislation championed by Guillen and other legislators, but Gov. Greg Abbott later signed another bill that essentially repealed that one. The legislation instead gave authority to state lawmakers to decide how to use revenue from the sporting goods sales tax.

“Last session, everybody thought we got it done, but it wasn't until months later did we figure out it had been repealed by another bill,” Guillen told the committee at Thursday's public hearing. “Most folks still believe this has already been done, but it hasn’t.”

State Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, sponsored the bill last session that overturned Guillen’s and said he was against HB 78 because it wouldn’t allow lawmakers the flexibility to fund unexpected events, such as hurricanes and flooding in the state. 

And while state parks and historical sites were often shortchanged in the budget, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said, she understood Gonzales' point, leaving her torn on the issue. 

“I’m very conflicted by it because I do believe parks and wildlife does not have the funding they need to carry out their critical role and they continue to have cuts over the years,” she said. “But we keep tying our own hands, and we have a responsibility to make decisions and prioritize funding.”

Four people testified in favor of the bill Thursday, with no one speaking against it. 

John Sheppard, executive director for the Texas Foundation for Conservation, told the committee that HB 78 was “an investment in Texas.” Under the legislation, he said the state would get $8 in return for every dollar allocated to the department, generating positive economic activity across the state. 

“A fully dedicated source of funding for state parks is an investment in communities, people, the unique Texas culture and natural resource conservation,” he said, adding that the permanent funding would allow maintenance, repairs and improvements to happen on a regular basis.

George Bristol, former chair of the Texas State Parks Advisory Committee, said the fact that the same measure passed last session was “a pretty good indication” that people in Texas backed the measure.

“It’s about time we get back to the intent of HB 78, and I hope you’ll pass it so parks can get the necessary funding,” he told the panel, adding that only 36 percent of the sporting goods sales tax went to state parks and historical sites since its creation 24 years ago.

The bill was left pending in committee Thursday.

Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • 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.

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