Texas has untouched money meant for state parks, even while parks have hundreds of millions of dollars in needs, lawmakers heard Monday (March 4), according to a report by the San Angelo Standard-Times.
However, in a hearing on legislation to make that money go to parks automatically, members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which handles taxes, worried that accountability could diminish.
“Somehow we’ve got to figure out how to restore the integrity,” said State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, the author of the legislation.
Early in the budget writing process, a state budget analysis agency reported that Texas might have to close several parks if the state didn’t adequately fund the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD).
Budget writers in the House have suggested adding about $18 million to TPWD, enough to keep parks open, said Tom Harvey, media communications director for Parks & Wildlife.
Larson’s legislation — House Bill 105, House Bill 162 and House Joint Resolution 40 — could bring even more funding back to state parks.
State taxes from the sale of sporting goods are set aside for state parks, but the money has been hoarded in a fund that is used to balance the budget, and only portions go toward the intended purpose.
“When they go in and they buy sporting goods, whether it’s a tennis racket, a racquetball, a football, a bicycle … there is a thought process in a lot of their minds that this money would be spent to maintain our parks system,” Larsons said about taxpayers.
Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Carter Smith said Larson’s legislation could allow Parks & Wildlife to get about $250 million over the next two-year budgetary cycle for state parks and grants, and Larson said Parks & Wildlife has about $500 million in deferred maintenance costs.
Legislators this session have pushed to do away with holding money set aside for special purposes, but then holding on to it mostly to balance the budget.
“If we want to make a profound impact on people’s lives in the state of Texas and we want to start moving toward that integrity in budgeting where we take dedicated revenue streams and start spending them for their intended purpose, there is not a better one than our parks system,” Larson said.
The legislators debated one of Larson’s legislative filings, which would make the money going to parks a part of the Texas Constitution. They worried that this would take away accountability of organizations and limit lawmakers’ role in dispensing revenue.
“Pretty soon, we’re not going to have to show up,” State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton said. “The budget will be written for us.”
Otto said lawmakers only have discretion of about 17.5% of general revenue.
Instead of mandating use in the Texas Constitution, he suggested possibly adjusting the amount lawmakers would be willing to appropriate to Parks & Wildlife.
The bills were left pending in committee.