Supposedly gambling is illegal in Texas, but every two years the Legislature is called into service and what happens is certainly a roll of the dice.
More than 90 parks and historic sites in the state annually attract more than 8 million visitors, and while entrance and camping fees go a long way toward paying for the operations it doesn’t foot all of the bills. In the past decade ownership of some parks has been shifted to local governments and historical sites have been handed off to another agency because of a lack of funding. At the parks that remain, except for a flush of bond money, repairs and purchases have been put on hold, and staff has been slashed.
The difference between generated revenues and operations cost should be covered by a long-ago approved state tax on select sporting goods items, but much of that money was hijacked early by the Legislature that couldn’t resist the tens of millions of dollars that came into the fund. Never has parks gotten anywhere near what it should from the fund, and because of that instead of being a crown jewel to tourism in the state they remain a pauper constantly looking for help. It is to the point some parks have put up the equivalent of tip jars at the front gate and the department began a public donation drive.
Legislators even botched what could have been the latest great funding answer when it approved a donation program tied to auto registration, but required it to be opt-in instead of the typically more successful opt-out option. The program did bring in approximately $600,000 its first year.
State parks started fiscal 2012 in what amounted to a $5 million deficit hole, the result of downed visitation during the drought of 2011 and budget cuts. That shouldn’t happen. The parks are supposed to get 94 percent of the sporting goods tax, a fund that generates $125 million annually. At the very best it has gotten 25 percent.
So parks are back before the Legislature, and unless previous cuts are restored and there is more relief from the sporting goods tax, the division outlook could be dire over the next two years.
Going into the session there is a movement to free dedicated funds for the purpose they were intended instead of including them in a political shell game to balance the budget. If that happens parks could finally get the tax funding it deserves. But change, especially financial change, comes slowly in Austin.
“We’re grateful that there is legislative support for state and local parks, and we are aware of bills filed that would provide additional park funding. We can’t speculate on how those bills might affect us; it’s too early to say. But we can say we are ready to make wise and efficient use of any additional funding to address deferred cyclic maintenance to park facilities, preventive maintenance and/or replacement of exhausted equipment, wildland fire protection and law enforcement services and programming to attract children and families into the outdoors,” said a cautious Leisure.
He added that additional funding for parks would benefit the communities around those parks who help supply visitors. It would also benefit cities throughout the state that use money from the state’s local park grants fund administered by TPWD but shutdown in the 2012-13 biennium because of the lack of funds.
If the legislature decides to hold the budget line where they did the last session, TPWD is prepared to ask for an extra $103, including $19 million that would go toward maintaining park operations. If not, the agency is looking at its version of a fiscal parks cliff.
The Parks Division rebounded nicely during the last fiscal year, showing its highest revenue over a five-year span. Leisure said visitation in the first quarter of 2012-13 is also good.
Since its beginning in 1934 the Texas park system has been undervalued by legislators. With another session under way, they once again have the chance to right at least one funding wrong. Whether it is license plates that support the arts or a tax on tents that should go to funding parks, fees from Texans should be dedicated to what they were intended.
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