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A Permanent Solution for the Ailing Texas Parks System?

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State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio)
LyleLarson.org
State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) in the Texas House

Those who enjoy the natural benefits of Texas state parks (which is to say, most self-respecting Texans) had ample reason to pay close attention at today’s House Ways and Means Committee meeting. Members met on Monday afternoon to discuss a key funding source for the chronically-underfunded Texas Parks and Wildlife Department: the sporting goods sales tax.

Since 1993, part of the tax paid on items like bicycles, fishing gear and athletic shoes is designated for the agency. However, lawmakers have been tapping the sales tax to help certify the state budget. In recent budget cycles, only a fraction of the money has actually been used to pay for parks. In this biennium, for example, Texas taxpayers are expected to generate $250 million through the sporting goods sales tax but the Legislature has only directed $52 million to the parks system.

While there seems to be little appetite this session for shuttering parks, as Texas Parks and Wildlife Department head Carter Smith has warned could happen without an influx of fresh funding, some outdoors enthusiasts want to take the agency off life support.

Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) aired three similar proposals at the Ways and Means Committee today. All three would direct the revenue from the tax directly to TPWD. Larson pitched the fix as both a “truth in taxation” measure and a means to finally put the battered parks system on sound footing.

“Our parks are not in the condition we can be proud of,” Larson said. “A lot of money needs to be spent to pick up the maintenance.”

Texas ranks near the bottom in per-capita park spending even though the vast majority of land in the state is privately owned. Larson noted that new public parks can’t be opened for want of money, even when land has been donated. A “beautiful” 4,000 acre ranch north of San Antonio recently deeded to the state, he said, would cost $16 million to develop, almost a quarter of the agency’s portion of the budget from the sales tax.

Larson’s most meaty bill, HJR 40, would ask voters to decide on a constitutional amendment that would ensure the sporting goods sales tax goes to its intended purpose. Automatically assigning the funds would prevent keep budget writers from getting their hands on the tax.

Some legislators were not so sure on a constitutional amendment. Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston) said he wasn’t keen on cutting legislators out of the process.

“I think your heart’s in the right place, we all agree with that,” Eiland told Larson. “Do we really want to take the money … [and] bypass the legislative process, even if [TPWD] is doing things that we don’t want them to do?”

Larson’s other two bills, HB 105 and HB 162, would also remove the sporting goods sales tax from the appropriations process. However, HB 105 would give the state coffers some time to adjust by only assigning 50 percent of the tax revenue to TPWD in the first year. Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville), who chairs Ways and Means, pointed out that he tried something similar in 2007. But in that instance, he said, the Senate balked at the last second and forced park advocates to accept a two-year boost in funding but no permanent fix.

Those in attendance at the hearing did agree on one fact: Texas’ parks are in poor condition, and desperately need state funding if they are to survive in the coming years. Carter Smith, executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife, spoke of the recent hardships that the department has had to endure.

“We ended up transferring two parks, closing regional offices. We let go of a lease on another [office], we modified, reduced operations for 23 parks. We ended up not filling dozens if not hundreds of positions … We went out with unprecedented public appeal for money to keep the state park system open. And then of course we had catastrophic events like [the Bastrop wildfires] which affected the system. So we have stretched the proverbial rubber band as far as it can be stretched.”