Monthly Archives

May 2019

Texas Tribune: Lawmakers pass bills to better fund Texas parks, historic sites — if voters approve

May 28, 2019
The Texas Tribune | By Carlos Anchondo

Advocates have pushed for years to put a constitutional amendment before voters to ensure Texas parks and historic sites get the maximum funding authorized from a sales tax on sporting goods. They have finally succeeded.

Sunrise over the historic Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. Sunrise over the historic Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.  Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

State parks and historic sites across Texas could receive a much-needed bump in funding in the not-so-distant future.

In a big win for outdoor enthusiasts and day-trippers alike, legislation that would ensure that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission always get the maximum amount of money they are allowed to receive through a state sporting goods sales tax has passed both the House and Senate and now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk for his signature.

The legislation, which seeks to amend the Texas Constitution, also requires voter approval. The measure will appear on Texas ballots this November, where it would need a simple majority to pass.

In 1993, state lawmakers passed legislation allowing up to 94 percent of the sporting goods sales tax to go to parks, with the remaining 6 percent designated for the state’s historical commission, which maintains Texas’ 22 historic sites.

However, in the following decades, they allocated an average of just 40 percent of the tax to the parks system and used the rest to help balance the state budget, according to parks advocates. From 1993 to 2017, Texas collected nearly $2.5 billion in revenue from the sporting goods sales tax, but lawmakers allocated only about $1 billion of that to state parks.

The first time lawmakers allocated the maximum 94 percent for parks and historic sites was in 2015.

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and state Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, worked together on Senate Bill 26 and Senate Joint Resolution 24, which they said would help agencies like the TPWD and the THC plan long term for repairs, projects and new parks.

Kolkhorst – whose district includes a number of state parks, including Stephen F. Austin State Park and Goliad State Park – said the legislation is about ensuring that all Texans can enjoy the state’s natural areas.

“The state has a responsibility to provide for our state parks and historic sites,” said Kolkhorst at a January news conference on the legislation. “This is truth in taxation.”

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, speaks at a press conference discussing funding for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, at the Capitol on Jan. 30, 2019. Behind Kolkhorst, from left to right: state Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, Joseph Fitzsimons, former chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, state Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, and current Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Ralph Duggins. (Photo Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / The Texas Tribune)

Advocates say a constitutional amendment is needed to ensure that all possible funding from the sporting goods sales tax goes to its intended destination. The Texas State Parks Advisory Committee has lobbied for a constitutional amendment since at least 2014.

Ralph Duggins, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission chairman, called the constitutional amendment “a game changer” for Texas parks and historic sites.

“As the state has grown, the demands upon our parks continue to mount so this bill will give voters the chance to assure their future with a predictable, dedicated and sustainable funding stream,” Duggins said via email.

A spokeswoman for TPWD said it is still too early for the agency to comment on improvements at specific sites, but longtime parks advocates say more funding would help repair over-burdened roads, bathrooms, bridges and trails. Nearly 10 million people visited Texas’ state parks in the 2017 fiscal year, putting increasing pressure on a parks system that already has an estimated $781 million in deferred maintenance needs.

Just this month, the spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park – deep in the heart of the West Texas desert – closed again briefly for repairs. It also closed in 2018 following the collapse of a wall because of erosion. Oil and gas company Apache Corporation donated $1 million to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Foundation in January as part of a fundraising push by the nonprofit for repairs.

George Bristol, a parks advocate who has worked on the issue for years, said he always thought a constitutional amendment was needed to ensure that the funds generated by the sporting goods sales tax go where they were intended. Bristol said more funding will help to prevent minor repairs from becoming major ones at parks.

He said that natural disasters, like Hurricane Harvey in 2017, have also placed a strain on parks – some of which took in evacuees after that storm.

“That has added a lot to the maintenance price tag,” said Bristol, who founded the Texas Coalition for Conservation. “There’s an argument right there for the fact that you have to have something sustainable so that you can plan ahead.”

Joseph Fitzsimons, former chair of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission and a founder of the Texas Coalition for State Parks, said the priority now is to “vigorously support” the passage of the constitutional amendment come November.

“Because of the Legislature’s hard work and dedication to this important issue, Texans will now have the opportunity to affirm their support of our state and local parks at the polls,” Fitzsimons said in statement last week, thanking Cyrier and Kolkhorst. “Future generations of Texans will have them and the entire Texas Legislature to thank for this historic effort.”



Fort-Worth Star Telegram: The main draw in this tiny town has been chicken fried steak. It just got another one

May 20, 2019
Fort-Worth Star Telegram | By Bill Hanna and Tessa Weinberg

Will the ‘Metroplex’s playground’ ever be realized?
It’s been nearly eight years of waiting.

In 2011, a site near the small-town of Strawn, best known for chicken-fried steak at Mary’s Cafe and six-man football, was selected to become 4,400-acre Palo Mountains State Park to serve Tarrant County and the western half of the Metroplex.

The park, with 1,400-foot ridgelines, creeks and hardwood forests, quickly became known as “the Metroplex’s playground” — but it has been stuck in limbo awaiting funding from legislators.

Now that funding — $12.5 million — has been allocated in the appropriations bill hashed out by the House and Senate, but there’s a catch. The park, halfway between Fort Worth and Abilene, will still need private donations to open its gates to guests, said Josh Havens, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman.

The park’s initial funding traces back to Tarrant County.

Proceeds from the sale of land that is now the Tarrant Regional Water District’s Eagle Mountain Park helped provide the seed money for Palo Pinto Mountains.

“Part of the agreement on Eagle Mountain was that the state would build a new state park in close driving proximity to Fort Worth, and we are making good on that commitment,” said State Sen. Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The park’s origins also have a colorful history. A shooting at the Mule Lip Bar in nearby Mingus also ended up providing some of the land for the park.

The park will need about $8 million to $10 million from private donations. The Texas Department of Transportation has $5.3 million set aside for January 2020 to build roads and a camping loop in the park, said Adam Hammons, a state transportation department spokesman.

“We’re very grateful the Legislature appropriated that money,” said Fort Worth attorney Ralph Duggins, chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. “We’ve got a big job through the Parks and Wildlife Foundation to raise that non-state money.”

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, which was founded in 1991 and raises private funds to help support the state park system, will seek donations for Palo Pinto Mountains.

“I think it’s safe to say we’re confident we can raise it,” said Lydia Saldaña, a spokesman for the foundation. “This kind of public-private partnership — this is the way these transformational projects are going to happen in Texas.”

Fort Worth resident George Bristol, a former member of the Audubon Texas board of directors and a longtime advocate for state parks. said it has been a successful legislative session for state parks.

A constitutional amendment election will be held in November that would dedicate 93% of the sporting goods sales tax to parks and the other 7% to historic sites. The sporting goods sales tax is not a new tax — it was always intended for state parks — but legislators haven’t always allocated all of those funds.

Bristol is also confident that private donations will be found for Palo Pinto Mountains.

“We can raise the funds that are needed,”Bristol said.

The park is critical to meet the growing demands of DFW’s booming population, which topped 7.5 million in the latest Census estimates.

“Part of meeting these growing demands means making available more park land that is easily accessible to Texans living in urban areas.” Havens said. “Only 70 miles from the DFW Metroplex, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park promises to become a new favorite playground for millions of Texans looking to get outside to fish, swim, hike, horseback ride and camp.”

For the residents of Strawn, the news that funding finally came through is a relief.

City Secretary Danny Miller said the park is essential to reviving the small town’s economy.

“We’ve been in this boat for 50, 60 years,” Miller said. ‘We’ve maintained. We’re not going downhill but we need this to grow.”

Jeff Hinkson, a past-president of the Strawn Chamber of Commerce, said both Strawn and Tarrant County had done their share to fund the park.

“The people of North Texas have waited a long time for the Legislature to hold up their end of the bargain and fund Palo Pinto Mountains,” Hinkson said. “Locally, we have worked diligently to be involved and collaborate with TPWD. We’re excited to see it developed and share this beautiful part of North Texas”



Austin American-Statesman: Bastrop, Buescher state parks report $30 million in needed repairs

May 1, 2019
Austin American-Statesman | By Renzo Downey and

The Lost Pines State Park Complex, composed of Bastrop State Park and Buescher State Park, is in need of $30 million of repairs and renovations, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimates.

Those repairs, along with $781 million in deferred maintenance needs across the entire state park system, is the motivation behind a bill proposing an amendment to the state constitution that would dedicate nearly all revenue collected through the sporting goods sales tax to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Last week, HB 1214 — authored by Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, who represents Bastrop County — received near-unanimous support from the House, which passed the measure with 149 votes to 1. The Senate unanimously approved its companion bill in April, carried by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. If signed by the governor, the bill would require final approval by voters in November.

“For too long, the Texas Legislature has charged the hardworking leaders and personnel of our state parks system with a very important job but not given them the resources they need to accomplish it,” Cyrier said in a statement. “This amendment will change that and provide the stable funding system necessary to preserve these natural treasures for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Some of the biggest ticket items in need of repairs at Bastrop State park include replacing a dam that was breached during the 2015 Memorial Day flood, estimated to cost $1 million; repairing roadways damaged by floods; renovating 14 historic, 1940s era cabins; reviving the golf course that was shuttered in 2015; and other building maintenance and renovations. Over the years, the costs for the needed repairs and renovations at Bastrop State Park have climbed to an estimated $21 million, the parks department said.

Buescher State Park requires an estimated $6 million repair to its dam spillway, which was damaged during Hurricane Harvey, as well as $2.5 million in repairs and upgrades to the park’s water system and campsite utilities, renovation of a playground, and replacement a building’s leaking roof.

“The state park system that exists today was not built with the anticipation that 10 million visitors per year would utilize the parks,” Cyrier said. “We have an obligation to ensure that future generations have access to these important outdoor spaces. The 86th Texas Legislature has an historic opportunity to make a lasting impact on our parks, creating stability for future planning and growth that will benefit all Texans.”

If voters approve the constitutional amendment, it would dedicate 93.4% of sporting goods sales tax revenue to the Parks and Wildlife Department and 6.6% to the Historical Commission, primarily for park maintenance. The funds would begin flowing to the two agencies beginning in 2021.

In 2015, the Legislature passed a statute led by Kolkhorst and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, that would have allocated the funds to the agencies, but after opposition from lead appropriators, and despite apparent unanimous support, a Senate measure rendered that attempt ineffective.

“You’ve seen it over the last few sessions since I’ve been here,” Cyrier said. “There’s plenty of other dedicated revenues that have been diverted, so I think it’s just one of those.”

Cyrier said he felt momentum for the bill this session as every state representative, other than Speaker Dennis Bonnen, signed on to the House version beforehand and a coalition of 80 organizations and associations were supporting it. However, the 2015 effort, which began as a constitutional amendment and was changed to a statute, appeared to have similar support.

By making the measure a constitutional amendment, the Legislature cannot alter it without a two-thirds vote in both houses and public approval. The difference this time was discussing the measure with the House Speaker in December and with the appropriations committee early in the session, Cyrier said.

“I think that was the whole key on that,” he said. “Once people understood it, everybody agreed with it.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick prioritized the effort in the Senate, which passed the measure earlier this month.

“Our parks and historical sites are a key component of Texas’ heritage and must be preserved for future generations, and I commend the Senate for re-affirming this commitment,” Patrick said in a written statement following the Senate vote.



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