Legislature needs to give funds back to parks
Imagine for a moment standing on the precipice of a canyon carved thousands of years ago by nature, breathing fresh, Texas panhandle air and looking out on the expanse of shimmering red and gold rock jutting out over the earth, picturing our Native American forbearers traversing the land.
This is the experience one might have when visiting Palo Duro Canyon State Park, located just outside of Amarillo. Palo Duro is just one of the many parks in the system maintained by Texas Parks and Wildlife. Our state is blessed with an abundance of breathtaking open spaces and natural areas. Most of the land in Texas is privately owned, but we are fortunate to have thousands of acres of public land that is part of our world-class state park system.
As our state continues to become more urbanized, many young Texans are growing up in major cities, and the only opportunity they will have to experience nature and wildlife is through a visit to a state or local park.
Historically, Texans have recognized the need to preserve, maintain and grow our state park system. The challenge we've faced in recent years, however, deals with the way the state funds these efforts.
In 1993, the Legislature began using revenue collected from the sale of sporting goods to fund state park operations. In 1995, the Legislature capped park spending at $32 million per year. Finally in 2007, State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran championed a measure that lifted the cap, but unfortunately, state budget writers have continued to use only a small fraction of the sporting goods sales tax for parks. In fact, since 2007, more than $400 million in sporting goods sales tax collections have been used to certify the budget or spent on programs unrelated to parks.
In 2011, when the state faced a historic $27 billion shortfall, budget cuts led to layoffs of more than 70 rangers and other park staff, deferred maintenance and reduced services at 23 parks. Grants to local governments for building new parks and playgrounds were mostly eliminated.
Many of the parks in our system are in dire need of maintenance and cost estimates for addressing deferred maintenance are as high as $500 million statewide. Additionally, TPWD is currently unable to bring thousands of acres of land that has been donated or acquired into park inventory without additional funding. TPWD may also be forced to close some parks beginning in 2014 if we continue to refuse to provide proper funding.
Much has been said recently about restoring truth in budgeting at the state level. The reality is, if we're going to finally restore integrity in the budgeting process, there is no better place to start than providing parks the funding that has been promised. Our state parks have a profound impact on every person who lives in or visits our great state, and they are the most visible example of how the state takes care of its most iconic Texas institutions.
For this reason, I filed HB 105, HB 162 and HJR 40 to ensure that 94 percent of the proceeds of the sporting goods sales tax go to parks (the other 6 percent would go to the Historical Commission). Senator Craig Estes has filed the senate version of these bills, SB 175 and SJR 17.
Though we continue to fight for truth in budgeting in funding for parks and other areas of the budget in the halls of the Capitol, we won't achieve success without you. Whether you are concerned about the fate of your favorite park or natural area or you're tired of being told that your tax dollars are being collected for one thing and spent on another, it's time to make your voice heard. Contact your state legislators and ask them to support these bills to finally begin providing parks the funding that has been promised.
Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, represents District 122 in the Texas House of Representatives. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.