October 26, 2019
Houston Chronicle | By Matt Wyatt
That’s the estimated backlog for maintenance and repairs needed at Texas’ state parks and historical sites.
The number also doesn’t include the capital required to build on existing parks and develop donated land, creating new parks to meet the swelling population of the Lone Star State.
With early voting continuing through Nov. 1 and election day, Nov. 5, voters have an opportunity to help protect funds for a state park system in desperate need.
If approved by a majority of voters, Proposition 5 would add an amendment to the Texas Constitution that automatically appropriates the full revenue from the sporting goods sales tax to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission, with TPWD getting 93% and THC receiving 7%.
The sporting goods sales tax is not an extra or separate tax, it is simply the portion of the 6.25% state sales tax obtained from sporting goods purchases. The amendment would not raise taxes.
If it is not approved, the legislature would continue to be able to allocate revenue from the sporting goods sales tax elsewhere on the state budget. This has caused uncertainty and inconsistency in funding, which has handcuffed TPWD and THC.
“You can’t run a business when you don’t know what your budget is going to be in two years. And with the kind of wild cycles of budgeting that the department has seen over the last couple of decades, it’s really impossible to do long-term planning,” said Jenifer Sarver, spokesperson for the Texas Coalition for State Parks.
The coalition — a collection of 75 conservation-minded organizations like Texas Wildlife Association, Coastal Conservation Association and Ducks Unlimited — was founded by Joseph Fitzsimons and Dan Allen Hughes, former chairs of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, with “the sole purpose of getting a constitutional amendment to dedicate that sporting goods sales tax — 100 percent of it — to parks and historic sites,” Fitzsimons said.
The law, as it stands now, allows for a loophole that keeps the state’s 95 state parks, 22 historic sites and local park grant program from receiving the full amount of the sporting goods sales tax, which is contrary to the intention of the law when it was passed in 1993 to replace the penny tax on cigarettes as a steady revenue stream.
Instead, the coalition says that only about 40% of the available funds went to TPWD and THC from 1993-2017. The other 60% went to the general revenue fund, with the 2016-17 appropriation being the only instance where 100% of the funds available went where originally intended. The 2018-19 appropriation of 89% and 2010’s 60% are the only other years in which TPWD and THC received more than half of the available funds.
“It just makes sense that when you go buy a tent or kayak, that the sales tax that you pay on those items should go to giving you a place to use those items. It’s truth in taxation is what it is,” Fitzsimons said.
Fitzsimons has been working on this issue since 1999, when he was a member of then Gov. George W. Bush’s task force on conservation. Fitzsimons said one of the recommendations that task force made was for the state’s park system to be fully funded.
Now, 20 years later, that goal is within reach.
Proposition 5 comes from Senate Joint Resolution 24 and Senate Bill 26, which were unanimously approved by House and Senate members. SB 26 was signed by Gov. Gregg Abbott in June. The legislation was originally sponsored in the House by Rep. John Cyrier (R-Lockhart), the Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee chair, and was championed in the Senate by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham).
“As our population grows, Texas must promote and protect our public parks and state historic sites. We can all agree that these special places are vital to our economy and to our heritage, culture, and way of life,” said Sen. Kolkhorst.
“Supporting our state parks and historic sites is an investment in our future and provides a gateway to the outdoors for every Texan. People should not have to wait for days or weeks to gain entrance to these locations which are true Texas treasures.”
Texas’ state parks, a majority of which are over 30 years old, hosted nearly 10 million visitors in 2017 and are becoming more dilapidated as more people pour in. The coalition says that weather-related damages alone cost $9 million annually and there are 500 specific items that currently need to be addressed.
Lake Livingston State Park alone has 10 projects listed that range from bathroom repairs, playground upgrades and road improvements.
Fitzsimons says as this backlog of issues pile up, some parks are forced to close, which can be devastating for communities.
“When you close a park, that’s like closing a major employer and tourist draw. It has a big economic impact, especially in small rural communities. That’s like a losing a factory,” Fitzsimons said.
A report by Texas A&M’s Dr. John L. Crompton analyzed the economic impact of Texas state parks. His report concluded that in 2018 state parks earned $891 million in sales, had a $240 million income impact on Texans and employs over 6,000 people.
It’s not just the accumulation of deferred maintenance that poses a challenge for TPWD, either. The ability to forge ahead with new projects has been hindered by inconsistent budgeting.
Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, for example, is a totally undeveloped, 4,000-plus acre tract west of Fort Worth that remains unopened as it awaits funding.
“You have these unused assets sitting there while more and more people are using our parks,” Sarver said.
Other undeveloped sites include Albert and Bessie Kronkosky State Natural Area, Davis Hill State Park, Chinati Mountains State Natural Area and parts of Devils River State Natural Area and Powderhorn Wildlife Management Area.
A pivotal step in resolving the myriad of issues TPWD and THC face can be taken on election day, as Proposition 5 will be voted on along with nine other amendment proposals.
If approved, the amendment would not go into effect until 2021. The amendment’s guarantee of full revenue from the sporting goods sales tax could only be tampered with by a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, and even in that case, the amendment prevents the legislature from taking more than half from TPWD and THC.
Fitzsimons says the amendment would be a turning point for the parks systems, and in turn, Texans.
“I think the long-term benefit is quality of life of Texans. It’s an opportunity for access to the outdoors,” Fitzsimons said.
“Just think about all of the Boy Scout troops that need a place to go. Not to mention just families who want an affordable vacation.”