KEEP TEXAS PARKS OPEN
Guest Column By Ian Davis
Last week, stories broke across Texas that Texas State Parks may need to close given proposed funding levels in the state budget. This news may have come as a shock to Texans given the state’s current budget surplus.
The possible closure of state parks begs the following questions: what is the value of state parks, why are they facing a budget shortfall, and what mechanisms exist to ensure they remain open and thriving?
Our state parks are very much a Texas treasure, providing an affordable, fun and healthy way for families to explore Texas. With over a half-million acres of open space, parks also help protect our water quality and wildlife habitats. Furthermore, the 8 million annual visitors to our parks provide a significant boost to our economy. The Texas parks system generates 12,000 jobs across the state, and out-of-state tourists pump $283 million annually into our local communities.
Outdoor spaces are very popular among Texans. A 2013 statewide poll conducted by Hill Research Consultants shows that 84 percent of Texans see state parks as essential to healthy active lifestyles, and 85 percent of Texans acknowledge a need to protect our natural areas.
Yet we now find ourselves in a situation where the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) may have to close state parks. TPWD requested an additional $11.2 million dollars for the operation of state parks in the 2014-2015 budget. While Senate and House budgets did allocate an additional $6.9 million in funding, staff at the Legislative Budget Board interpreted these figures to mean 7 state parks could close.
Our state parks system is already facing tough times after TPWD saw its budget cut deeply during the last legislative session. Over 100 employees were laid off, some park operations and maintenance were reduced, and a popular local park grant program was eliminated. The parks system also suffered from the brutal drought and wildfires of 2011.
The good news is that a solution exists to the dire situation facing our state park system. In 1993, the Texas Legislature dedicated a portion of the sales tax on sporting goods to help fund Texas parks. Comptroller Susan Combs projects this fund will generate $265 million over the coming 2014-2015 biennium, more than enough money to adequately fund our state park system.
But here’s the catch. The Texas Legislature frequently diverts the Sporting Good Sales Tax intended for state parks to other areas of the budget. This is part of a larger debate over “truth-in-budgeting” that involves many other fees and taxes being diverted away from their intended purpose.
How much is being diverted from parks funding? The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department only received approximately one-quarter of the Sporting Goods Sales Tax revenues for the 2012-2013 biennium.
The 2013 Hill Research poll also shows strong support for using the Sporting Goods Sales Tax to fund state parks. 76 percent of respondents support using revenue from the tax for “Acquiring, maintaining and operating state and local parks.”
We don’t need new taxes to solve the parks funding crisis. The Sporting Goods Sales Tax, if used for its intended purpose, generates sufficient revenue to keep our state park system healthy and thriving.
We can do better. Let’s take pride in our state park system by funding it at adequate levels. Lets keep Texas parks open.
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Ian Davis is the Director of the Keep Texas Parks Open campaign. The campaign is organizing town halls meetings across the state on state parks funding. To learn more or get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.facebook.com/keeptexasparksopen.