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Texas Observer: ‘All it Took was 25 Years’: Legislature Ponies Up Cash for Underfunded Texas Parks

July 11, 2019
Texas Observer | By Joe Nick Patoski

Texas state parks have been a convenient piggy bank for the Legislature whenever money was short elsewhere, but this session they got their due. Lawmakers put more funding than ever into state parks, and additionally are giving voters a chance to approve a constitutional amendment this November to ensure a long-term source.

The amendment, passed by more than two-thirds of the House and Senate and signed by Governor Greg Abbott this weekend, is basically a fulfillment of funding that was promised in 1993. That year, lawmakers dedicated a portion of revenue from the sales tax on sporting goods to fund state parks — 94 percent of the revenue was meant for parks and the remaining 6 percent to the state’s 22 historic sites. Since then, though, legislators have consistently appropriated far less than parks’ full share, moving the money around to other parts of the budget and leaving some of the most beautiful and popular places in the state woefully underfunded. Until 2007, state parks’ slice of the sporting goods tax was capped at $32 million. Parks have received less than half of the dedicated revenue since 1993.

LEGISLATIVE BUDGET BOARD

The new constitutional amendment, which a majority of voters must approve this November, would guarantee that parks and historic sites get their share into the future. Ultimately, it’s a matter of catching up with intent from 1993.

In addition to the constitutional amendment, lawmakers ponied up funds — the full $322 million from the sporting goods tax revenue earmarked for state parks — that will be appropriated regardless of the November election. That’s about 10 times what parks were allotted in 2007, and marks the third consecutive session that parks got their full share owed under the law.

The success for state parks this session is about as good as it gets, according to George Bristol, the founder of the Texas Coalition for Conservation and former chair of the Texas State Parks Advisory Committee and Audubon Texas. Bristol has been lobbying the Legislature for the past nine sessions.

parks, enchanted rock
A long line to get into Enchanted Rock State Natural Area the morning of March 17, 2018.  EARL NOTTINGHAM/TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE

Advocates hope the Lege’s newfound appreciation for wide open spaces helps address issues caused by record visitor numbers (nearly 10 million in fiscal year 2017). Advance online reservations are just about the only assurance of getting in to the most popular parks during busy periods.

“We need more parks, and more parks close to our major metropolitan areas,” Bristol said.

The unplugging of the budgetary logjam will allow for the development of Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, located west of Fort Worth. Lawmakers approved $12.5 million in funding for Palo Pinto, along with $10 million from TxDOT to build roads to the park and another $10 million in matching funds to be raised by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Foundation. Other large, 10,000-acre-plus tracts in the system, including prime Hill Country and coastal habitat, are lined up behind Palo Pinto Mountains waiting to be developed into state parks.

What happened this year that made the difference?

rosy revenue estimate from the comptroller at the beginning of the session didn’t hurt. It was a lubricant for school finance reform and other spending measures that have been on the chopping block in past years.

LEGISLATIVE BUDGET BOARD

Public pressure to improve parks, many of which are on the verge of falling apart, helped, too.

“More and more House members had been called out by their constituents about their particular state park — the bathrooms didn’t work, the automobile lines were too long. So there was some consensus to fix it, and fix it permanently so we don’t get this grief every two years,” Bristol said.

He also pointed to the leadership of Senator Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Representative John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, the sponsors of the legislation in their respective chambers. Support from Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioners, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick was also key, he said.

“We had to have two-thirds of the vote of the House and Senate to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, and we got it walking and riding,” Bristol said. “… There was no opposition. Everybody signed on and made it work.”

bentsen state park
Bentsen state park viewed from its hawk observation tower.  GUS BOVA

Joseph Fitzsimons, former chair of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission and founder of the Texas Coalition for State Parks, also pushed the effort this session. He described the constitutional dedication as “transformative” for state and local parks. “It’s a logical nexus between taxation and public benefit  — what a concept!” he said. “All it took was 25 years of perseverance by park advocates.”

Updating woefully outdated park facilities will take time. “$800 million in deferred maintenance can’t be addressed all at once,” Bristol said. “There aren’t enough design engineers and technical people to do it. But the Legislature has recognized nearly every state agency is way behind in maintenance funding.”

Now all eyes turn to voters in November. Bristol is raising money for the constitutional amendment election, utilizing a coalition of 74 organizations that he says represent more than 1 million Texans.

“We’re making up for 30 years of neglect. But we’ve got these tools now to get started and do something meaningful, sustainable and substantial,” he said.

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Source: https://www.texasobserver.org/all-it-took-was-25-years-legislature-ponies-up-cash-for-underfunded-texas-parks/

The Sealy News: Kolkhorst touts successful legislative session for Senate District 18

June 13, 2019
The Sealy News | By staff

Contributed report
The 86th Legislature ended on May 27 and while Gov. Greg Abbott is still signing legislation, State Sen. Lois W. Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) is touting legislation that positively impacts Senate District 18.

“My goals this session were to provide property tax relief, deliver an overhaul of the school finance system, fully recover from Harvey, improve access to healthcare in rural Texas, as well as see major investments in the state and historic parks,” said Kolkhorst. “It was a long session with many twists and turns but in the end, we achieved these goals and more.”

As a member of the powerful Finance Committee and Budget Conference Committee, Kolkhorst was one of 10 lawmakers to write the final version of the state budget, totaling $250 billion.

Through the state budget and House Bill 3, $5 billion was provided for major property tax relief, $4.5 billion for educational reform in the classroom including increasing the state-funded “basic allotment” per student, and $2 billion to provide teachers with a meaningful pay raise.

To protect the Teacher Retirement System, $1.1 billion was dedicated to the retired teacher’s pension fund to ensure that it remains actuarially sound. Additionally, she co-authored and served on the conference committee for Senate Bill 12, which will give all current retired teachers a one-time “13th check” beyond the monthly allocation they currently receive as a cost of living adjustment.

As chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Kolkhorst authored and passed bills expanding access to and improving the quality of healthcare across rural Texas. Responding to issues local hospitals had with state bureaucratic rulemaking related to neonatal intensive care units and maternal designations, Kolkhorst authored and passed SB 749 to clarify and ensure that rural hospitals can continue to provide critical neonatal and maternal care.

Inspired by discussions with local sheriffs, Senate Bill 632 requires local mental health authorities (LMHA) to appoint two sheriffs or sheriff representatives to their governing body. This legislation will ensure that local law enforcement is involved in the planning and budgeting of how local mental health dollars are deployed in their communities.

Additionally, through Senate Bill 633, LMHA’s are required to now plan, develop, and coordinate local policy, resources, and services for mental health care regionally beyond the boundaries of the service district in order to coordinate more mental health beds and more efficiently leverage tax dollars for the communities in their shared regions.

To preserve rural hospitals, Senate Bill 1621 instructs the Health and Human Services Commission to create a strategic plan to ensure access to hospital care in rural areas. Kolkhorst successfully secured a record $106 million for rural hospitals in the state budget that will benefit rural hospitals in populations of less than 50,000. Through the state budget, Kolkhorst also secured $59 million in new funding to increase outpatient community mental health treatment capacity and avoid future waitlists; as well as an increase of $26 million for 50 new community inpatient psychiatric beds.

To promote and protect state park and historic sites, Kolkhorst authored and passed Senate Joint Resolution 24 and Senate Bill 26 which will offer a significant and long-term funding increase for state recreation and historic sites across Texas. Under this legislative package, the entire amount of currently collected state’s sporting good sales tax will be constitutionally dedicated to parks and historic sites.

“The sporting goods sales tax is not a new tax but rather a tax that was intended to fund our state parks since 1993,” said Kolkhorst. “By constitutionally dedicating this tax, our parks can keep up with deferred maintenance and plan for the future. This legislation passed with unanimous and bipartisan support because we can all agree that these special places are vital to our economy and to our heritage, culture, and way of life.”

As for Senate Bill 421, Kolkhorst’s premier eminent domain reform legislation, the senator said she was proud of the legislation which gained the ardent support of landowner groups statewide but was disappointed it failed to cross the finish line for the third consecutive session. Kolkhorst said that her fight for landowner property rights will continue because there is a balance that must be struck that allows industry to flourish while respecting the basic rights of property owners.

In response to Hurricane Harvey, Texas passed a series of monumental bills that are designed to improve disaster preparation, response, and recovery.

As a co-author of Senate Bill 500, Kolkhorst helped secure $3.5 billion for Harvey recovery statewide. Of that total, $1.4 billion was allocated to the Texas Education Agency to reimburse school districts for property value losses after Harvey. Additional appropriations within Senate Bill 500 include: $1.7 million for the University of Houston at Victoria, $10.2 million for the University of Texas Marine Science Center in Port Aransas and $4 million to the Department of Housing and Community Affairs for affordable rental housing in Port Aransas.

“During the 86th Texas Legislative Session, one of my top missions was to address the loss of life and property from Hurricane Harvey, which severely impacted much of Senate District 18,” said Kolkhorst. “Survivors and victims of Harvey must never be forgotten and the best way to pay tribute to them is to unite as Texans helping other Texans and creating an action plan for the next disaster.”

To protect the state against future natural disasters, Kolkhorst authored and passed Senate Bill 6 to enhance training and education for local emergency management professionals to ensure that they cannot only respond to disasters in the short term but that they are prepared to assist their communities in recovery on a long term basis. Additionally, Senate Bill 6 establishes a disaster loan program of $10 million for small communities who see over 50% of their tax base wiped out in a disaster.

Kolkhorst also co-wrote Senate Bill 7 creating two funds that will be administered by the Texas Water Development Board for flood projects: the Flood Infrastructure Fund with $793 million and the Texas Infrastructure Resilience Fund with $857 million. Senate Bill 8 was also passed to create a network of regional watershed groups developed and overseen by the Texas Water Development Board with emphasis on watershed planning.

“Serving the people of Senate District 18 has and continues to be one of the greatest honors of my life, and I look forward to continue serving,” said Kolkhorst.

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Source: http://sealynews.com/stories/kolkhorst-touts-successful-legislative-session-for-senate-district-18,81586 

Texas Monthly: Texas Parks Are Broke. But There’s Good News: Voters Can Rescue Them.

June 10, 2019
Texas Monthly | By Wes Ferguson

A constitutional amendment aims to shore up funding for Texas’s system of state parks and historic sites.

The Chinati Mountains State Natural Area in the Big Bend region will someday open to visitors.
Earl Nottingham/Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

Money intended for state parks and historic sites should actually be spent on state parks and historic sites, right?

It took lawmakers a little more than a quarter century to reach that conclusion. Since 1993, sales tax collected from the purchase of sporting goods and outdoor gear was supposed to fund Texas’s system of much-loved yet perpetually cash-strapped state parks and historic sites. Buy a kayak in Texas? In theory, you’re a park benefactor. Same for the purchase of baseball gloves and fishing poles, exercise bikes and the like.

But legislators couldn’t resist withholding the revenue from state parks in order to shore up the state’s general budget. From 1993 to 2015, in fact, just 40 percent of an estimated $2.5 billion in sporting goods sales tax ever made its way to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to both operate state parks and provide grants for local and regional parks.

“We’ve been on a roller coaster ride all these years,” says George Bristol, a top booster of state parks.

Bristol is expecting a smoother ride for TPWD in the very near future. On Friday, Governor Greg Abbott signed legislation allowing voters to decide once and for all whether the sporting goods sales tax will be used exclusively for the purpose it was originally intended.

The constitutional amendment will hit the ballot in November. It couldn’t come sooner: TPWD is staring down an estimated $800 million backlog in repairs and maintenance.

“It gets us out of a lot of problems—not all the problems, but a great many of the problems,” Bristol says. “Having a known flow of funds is a big step in the right direction.”

For years, TPWD never knew how much money from the sporting goods sales tax the Legislature would appropriate, if any. The agency was at the mercy of the political climate and the state’s fluctuating financial health. Even as the popularity of state parks has exploded to nearly 10 million visits a year, TPWD was unable to budget more than a year or two in advance. Aging facilities have fallen into disrepair. Long lines and frequent closures await visitors at the busiest parks. On pleasant weekends, forget about trying to get into state park system jewels like Enchanted Rock and Garner State Park without a reservation.

Meanwhile, land either purchased or donated to establish new parks has languished with no timetable to open. TPWD has also been forced to turn down land donations that could have led to the opening of more parks.

“The department couldn’t afford to take dedications of private lands for state parks that were given to us because we didn’t have the funding to open them and operate them. Isn’t that crazy?” says Joseph Fitzsimons, former chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission and founder of the Texas Coalition for State Parks, a group pushing for the constitutional dedication of the sporting goods sales tax. “If somebody tries to give you a park and you can’t take it, something’s wrong.”

But now prospects are suddenly looking much brighter for new parks like West Texas’s rugged 38,000-acre Chinati Mountains State Natural Area, donated in 1996, and Powderhorn Ranch State Park, part of a 17,000-acre public coastal prairie on Matagorda Bay. One of the most eagerly awaited state parks in the works—Palo Pinto Mountains, on 4,400 acres of ridges, canyons, and lake on former ranch land 75 miles west of Fort Worth—got an extra boost from the most recent legislative session. Lawmakers appropriated $12.5 million to develop Palo Pinto, which was acquired in 2011. “It’s going to be an awesome state park,” says Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart.

Cyrier authored the House’s version of the sporting goods sales tax bill. If approved by voters this fall, the constitutional amendment would take effect in 2021 and could only be altered by a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate followed by a statewide referendum.

TPWD will receive 94 percent of the sporting goods sales tax—a pot that has grown to about $160 million a year—and the Texas Historical Commission will receive the remaining 6 percent to operate the state’s 22 historic sites. Currently, the sporting goods sales tax funds a little more than half of state park operations, with the remainder mostly coming from entry and camping fees. TPWD would also continue to provide grants to city and county parks from its share of the tax revenue.

“I’ve got to tell you, this is going to be transformative,” Fitzsimons says.

In the past three legislative sessions, there’s been broad bipartisan support to provide steady funding for state parks. In 2015, the Legislature appropriated 100 percent of the sporting goods sales tax; in 2017, it appropriated nearly 90 percent. But legislation to make the funding permanent faltered. It finally got over the last legislative hurdle in late May, during the last full week of the 86th session.

“With Texas being over 94 percent in private lands, the opportunities for people to be out in open spaces are basically through our state park system,” Cyrier says. “Protecting those parks now and preserving them for the future is absolutely critical for the quality of life of all Texans.”

Bristol says his polling over the past decade shows that about 7 in 10 Texans support the constitutional amendment. “As somebody who’s been working on this for more than 18 years,” he says, “I’m more than delighted and glad it’s almost over.”

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Source: https://www.texasmonthly.com/politics/texas-parks-are-broke-but-good-news-voters-can-rescue-them/ 

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.”

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Source: https://www.texastribune.org/2019/05/28/texas-parks-historic-sites-funding-voter-approval/

https://www.news-journal.com/news/state/lawmakers-pass-bills-to-better-fund-texas-parks-historic-sites/article_83f69b54-81a6-11e9-ac26-8b91fa8843a9.html

https://abc7amarillo.com/news/local/lawmakers-pass-bills-to-better-fund-texas-parks-historic-sites-if-voters-approve

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

[VIDEO]
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”

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Source: https://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/community/fort-worth/article230906018.html? 

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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Source: https://www.statesman.com/news/20190501/bastrop-buescher-state-parks-report-30-million-in-needed-repairs 

Houston Chronicle: Legislature close on bills to fund state parks, improve boating safety

April 27, 2019
Houston Chronicle | By Shannon Tompkins

As the Texas Legislature heads into the final month of its 86th biennial 140-day session, lawmakers appear poised to adopt several proposals that would affect outdoors recreation or the natural resources on which activities such as fishing, camping, hunting and boating depend.

Last week, the Legislature moved closer to passing a pair of bills that would allow voters to decide the fate of a constitutional amendment that would ensure reliable and significantly larger annual funding of the perennially cash-strapped state parks systems.

Bills that would require use of emergency engine cutoff devices by most boaters, exempt hunters pursuing feral hogs from hunting license requirements, allow a fee to be charged hunters and landowners who participate in a state-administered white-tailed deer management program, and increase penalties for some commercial fishing-related offenses also moved closer to passage.

Voters also to have say

Last Tuesday, the Texas House passed by almost unanimous vote two bills aimed at securing significant and stable funding of state and local parks. The legislation — Senate Bill 26 and Senate Joint Resolution 24 — had earlier in themonth passed the Texas Senate by unanimous vote.

The bills, authored by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, pave the way for Texans to vote on an amendment to the Texas Constitution that would, beginning in 2021, dedicate all revenue generated by state sales tax paid on items defined as sporting goods to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission.

Current Texas law allows the Legislature to appropriate as much as 94 percent of revenue from the 6.25 percent general state sales tax paid on sporting goods to TPWD to fund the state parks system and the remaining 6 percent to the Texas Historical Commission to fund that agency’s operations. Appropriations from that account are crucial to funding the state park system as well as TPWD-managed grant programs for local parks across the state.

But past Legislatures rarely appropriated the full amount of the sales tax revenue to the agency. From 1993 to 2017, sales tax paid on purchases of sporting goods generated almost $2.5 billion. But past Legislatures have appropriated only about 40 percent of that to state parks funding, channeling the rest of the revenue to other uses.

Lacking reliable, adequate funding, Texas’ 95-unit state park system has struggled, saddled with a backlog of tens of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance as well as damages caused by a years-long series of natural disasters.

Under terms of the proposed constitutional amendment, all state sales tax revenue generated through purchases of sporting goods automatically would be appropriated to TPWD and the Texas Historical Commission, bypassing the legislative appropriations process. Texas’ Comptroller of Public Accounts estimates the sales tax revenue from sales of sporting good will generate $170 million in 2020.

While both chambers of the Texas Legislature have passed SB 26 and SJR 24, the House-passed version includes amendments not found in the Senate-passed version. If the Senate OKs the slightly amended versions of the two bills and they gain the governor’s signature, the constitutional amendment will be on the statewide ballot for a November vote.

Kill switches imminent

Legislation aimed at reducing boating injuries and fatalities by requiring the use of emergency engine cutoff devices appears close to final adoption. HB 337 by Rep. Lyle Larson, R- San Antonio, would require operators of powerboats less than 26 feet in length and equipped by the manufacturer with an engine cutoff switch to have that switch attached to them when the boat is underway.

The switches — often called kill switches — usually are attached via a lanyard with one end attached to the boat’s electrical system and the other to the operator’s wrist, belt or life jacket. If the operator is thrown from the helm or boat while it is underway, the lanyard pulls a plug that immediately kills the engine.

The Texas House has passed HB 337, and lastweek the proposal cleared a Senate committee, which recommended its passage.

SB 733, jointly sponsored by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, would allow the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to charge a modest fee for participation in the agency’s Managed Lands Deer Program. Currently, participants are charged no fee to participate in the program.

The MLD program allows landowners who enroll in a department-approved wildlife management plan to enjoy more liberal deer-hunting regulations than on land not enrolled in the program, including much longer deer-hunting seasons and, in many cases, more liberal bag limits.

The MLD program has seen tremendous growth in participation since its creation in the 1990s, increasing from 813 properties covering 3.1 million acres in 1998 to more than 11,000 private properties covering more than 25 million acres this year, with an average of 300 to 500 properties being added annually.

With MLDP’s explosive growth, administering the program — processing applications, visiting sites, helping landowners develop management plans and issuing permits — has greatly increased the work load of TPWD wildlife division biologists, reducing staff time to address other duties. Charging a fee to participate in the program is expected to generate as much as $1.35 million annually.

SB 733 has passed the Senate and cleared its House committee last week with a recommendation that it be passed. SB 733 is awaiting scheduling for a vote in that chamber.

Legislation that would exempt persons who huntferal hogs on private property with the consent of the landowner from hunting-license requirements appears close to passage. SB 317 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, was passed by the Senate, cleared its House committee and awaits scheduling for a vote in the House.

SB 733 would exempt landowners, their agents and lessees who take feral hogs on the landowner’s property from the current requirement that they hold a valid Texas hunting license unless the hogs they were taking were “causing depredation.”

Help for oysters

Penalties for taking oysters from closed areas, violating undersize oyster rules or possessing a cargo of oysters in which 30 percent or more are under the 3-inch minimum would be significantly increased under HB 2321 by Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria. The bill is aimed at addressing increasingly frequent repeat violations of those regulations by some commercial oyster fishers and the violation’s modest penalties under current law.

Under the legislation, which is scheduled for an April 29 vote in the House, charges for offenses related to undersize oysters or harvest of oysters from a closed area would be increased to include Class A and Class B Parks and Wildlife Department misdemeanors, with enhanced penalties, including license suspension, if a defendant has previous convictions for related violations. Currently, violations involving the taking oysters in closed waters and undersize oyster violations are Class C misdemeanors.

HB 1828, by Rep. Mando Martinez, D-Weslaco, would address instances in which black-market commercial trade in illegally taken or possessed fish such as red snapper, including cases involving multiple tons of fish. Currently, most of these violations are Class C misdemeanors, with fines of $500 or less.

Under HB 1828, which has passed the House and is scheduled for an April 29 hearing in the Senate, a person buying for resale or receiving for sale or transport any aquatic products taken, possessed or sold in violation of federal or state law could be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, Class A misdemeanor or a state jail felony, depending on the value and weight of the illegally taken, possessed or transported fish, shrimp or other aquatic resource.

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Source: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/sports/outdoors/article/Legislature-close-on-bills-to-fund-state-parks-13800161.php

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