* Correction appended.
Texas Parks and Wildlife officials, along with outdoor enthusiasts, are looking to lock in funding for the state’s parks during November’s constitutional amendment elections.
Should it pass, Proposition 5 will change the Texas Constitution so that money generated from the existing sales tax on sporting goods can be given only to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission.
Texas' parks were initially funded by a penny tax on cigarettes, but the Texas Legislature passed a law in 1993 allowing all of the sporting goods sales tax revenues to be used for the upkeep and expansion of parks and historical sites.
In the last two bienniums, the Texas Legislature appropriated between 89% and 100% of the sporting goods sales tax revenue to TPWD, but historically much of the revenue has been used to balance the state budget, according to state Rep. John P. Cyrier, R-Lockhart, who pushed the initial legislation.
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The Texas Coalition for State Parks, a conservationist group created to push the amendment, estimates that the parks received on average about $34 million from an average tax revenue of $95 million before 2017.
“For too long, state lawmakers have entrusted the hardworking leaders and personnel of our state parks system with a very important job but did not give them the resources they needed to accomplish it,” Cyrier said in a statement.
Environment Texas, a nonprofit promoting green environmental policy, has been touring the state parks leading up to the Nov. 5 vote to raise awareness for the proposition. Executive director Luke Metzger said the parks have intangible benefits like promoting tourism in Texas and maintaining clean water supplies for cities.
Proposition 5 “would make good on the promise made to Texans in 1993. It’s just as much about truth in taxation as it is about protecting parks,” Metzger said. “Every state legislator will say they support the parks. But when there’s an economic downturn, parks are one of the first things to get cut. That’s why Proposition 5 is so important, to provide stable funding so [the parks] are not on this roller coaster of funding and subject to the politics of the state legislature.”
State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who supported the amendment alongside Cyrier, said that until recent sessions, about 40% of the revenue from the sporting goods tax was usually allocated for TPWD. In a statement, Kolkhorst said that additional funding would go toward maintenance and repairs for the parks.
"Supporting our state parks and historic sites is an investment in our future and provides a gateway to the outdoors for every Texan. This legislation passed with bipartisan support because it is about delivering more maintenance and improvements to these sites, which in turn adds capacity for more visitors,” Kolkhorst said.
According to Rodney Franklin, director of state parks at TPWD, the parks have a combined $800 million in deferred maintenance, which has been exacerbated by an increase in traffic and an estimated $50 million in damage from Hurricane Harvey. Underfunding has limited the agency’s ability to prevent small issues from becoming larger and more costly.
“Nearly 80% of state parks were developed more than 30 years ago, with dozens of those established 70 or more years ago. Not surprisingly, basic facilities at state parks across the state have reached, or are rapidly approaching, the end of their design life,” Franklin said.
Texas Coalition for State Parks spokesperson Jenifer Sarver said deferred maintenance translates to broken bathrooms, long lines and reduced visitor capacity. However, she said, the parks have a $900 million economic benefit beyond their recreational impact.
“When people come to a park in West Texas, they’re not just paying an entrance fee, they’re going to be buying gas … and they’re going to pay to stay in hotels to attend the park,” Sarver said. “If a park has to close, it’s the equivalent of a manufacturing plant. It’s economically devastating.”
According to Cyrier, TPWD has received donated land that cannot be developed into state parks because of a lack of capital. Cyrier also said there is a generation of Texans who can't experience the outdoors due to the growth of metropolitan areas. Sarver said underfunding has limited the expansion of state parks and narrowed access to natural sites.
“Texas is an increasingly urban state, so you have limited outdoor space. Texas is also vastly privately owned, so unless you’re a wealthy landowner, you don’t have access to the land. … If [people] can’t appreciate the land, it’s hard for them to understand what it means to be a Texan,” Sarver said.
The passage of the proposition will not issue immediate funding to Texas Parks and Wildlife. The revenue generated from the tax will still need to be appropriated in the 2021 legislative session.
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Disclosure: Jenifer Sarver, Environment Texas, Texas Historical Commission and Texas Parks and Wildlife have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jenifer Sarver's name.