Texas Senate budget writers on Wednesday (March 13) unanimously approved a $195.4 billion state budget that increases funding for public schools, higher education and mental health and avoids the closure of any state parks, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
The budget includes a $35 million increase to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). Parks and Wildlife officials warned in advance of the session that they could be forced to close as many as 20 state parks unless lawmakers provided an adequate boost in funding.
The 2014-15 budget, which will fund state government over the next two fiscal years, calls for a $5.5 billion increase – nearly 3% over current spending. The proposed spending boost, the result of an upsurge in the state’s economy over the past two years, marks a reversal from the 2011 Legislature, when lawmakers were forced to cut spending $15.2 billion in the aftermath of the national recession.
Members of the state Senate Finance Committee applauded after approving the budget by a 15-0 vote. The full 31-member Senate is expected to vote on the spending document next Wednesday, said Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.
Williams had vowed not to shutter any state parks.
Lawmakers will craft a final version of the state budget from House and Senate proposals in a joint conference committee before the 2013 Legislature adjourns on May 27. The budget is typically approved in the final days of the Legislature.
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.
Four Texas park areas that cover nearly 48,000 acres of forests, canyons and beaches remain closed because park officials don’t have the money to open them.
The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department hasn’t gotten money from the Legislature to develop new parks for a decade, the Houston Chronicle reported. That frustrates parks advocates, who point to tracts of land that the state owns but hasn’t developed for visitors.
Those tracts include Davis Hill State Park, a 1,700-acre plot east of downtown Houston that includes a 261-foot hill, centuries-old trees and a beach along the Trinity River.
State officials envision walking trails, camp facilities and possibly an observation tower from the hill. But a master plan and development for the park could cost more than $12 million.
Retired Liberty County Judge Don Taylor said he worked with former Texas Gov. Price Daniel to line up donations and purchases for the park.
“Gov. Daniel wanted the land set aside for the people, because of the uniqueness of the property,” Taylor said. “But today it’s almost hidden from view. People who live in its shadow don’t even know it exists.”
Officials say they also need more money for the Kronkosky State Natural Area northwest of San Antonio, Palo Pinto Mountains State Park outside Fort Worth, and the Chinati Mountain State Natural Area in West Texas.
“We have limited resources that are devoted to projects with the highest priority and eventually we run out and projects continue to sit there,” state parks director Brent Leisure said.
State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, has offered one solution — a bill that could boost parks department funding by prohibiting lawmakers from using sporting goods sales tax revenue for any other purpose. The tax generated $248 million in 2012-13. Less than one-fourth of that amount went to parks.
“It feels remiss for us to be letting potential parkland sit dormant because there’s no funding,” Larson said. “But park administrators have been beaten back from the trough for so long that this year they didn’t even ask.”
Evelyn Merz, the statewide conservation chairwoman for the Sierra Club, said she wanted revenue from specialty license plates and stamps that are related to conservation or wildlife. Those items brought in $1.3 million over the last two years, she said.
“With all this, there should be plenty of money to keep our old parks going while working to open the new ones,” Merz said.
In the past five years, Hurricane Ike nearly wiped two popular Texas beachfront parks from the map in Galveston and Sabine Pass, while record-setting wildfires burned thousands more acres of state parkland.
According to a report by the San Antonio Express-News, the drought has killed countless trees and continues to punish West Texas parks such as San Angelo, which has banned all recreation on its nearly bone-dry lake. And then there are the repairs needed for aging historic park sites such as the leaky Battleship Texas.
With such a troubling backdrop, park supporters have banded together for their newest battle: budget cuts that could force the closure of as many as nine state parks. The thought of shutting down parks in a state that prides itself on its diverse and majestic outdoors is upsetting to many.
“We need to turn up the volume and let people know that our state parks are threatened,” said Ian Davis, director of the Keep Texas Parks Open campaign. “We’re in a time of budget surplus, and it seems backwards to be closing parks.”
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs has predicted a 12.4% or $11.2 billion increase in general revenue funds for the 2014-15 biennium.
But the initial proposed park budget being considered by the Texas House and Senate now is $4.1 million short of the minimum to keep the state’s 91 parks open, park officials say. The Legislative Budget Board, which develops budget and policy recommendations for the Legislature, last week estimated such a cut could close as many as nine parks but did not identify any of them.
Despite the dire outlook, Texas Parks and Wildlife executive director Carter Smith remains optimistic: “This is only a beginning point of a long budget process that will take place over the next couple of months.”
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Texas might have to close 20 of its 95 state parks unless the Legislature approves $18.9 million in additional funding, wildlife officials said.
The additional money is part of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) request for $507.1 million over the next two years, plus an additional $103 million to restore previous cuts, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
Brent Leisure, the department’s director, said some parks would have to be closed unless lawmakers approved the $18.9 million spending boost, because the department has cut costs by laying off staff and reducing park operating hours.
“You can reduce operations in some way to save money, but we’ve already done that,” he said.
The Legislative Budget Board was expected to release its budget recommendations today (Jan. 14). Although State Comptroller Susan Combs projected that there will be $101.4 billion in general-purpose revenue for the 2014-2015 period, which would be about 30% more than in the current two-year budget, state officials have said they will not make big spending increases.
Leisure said decisions about park closures would wait until the financial picture became clearer. Even if parks must be closed, the state would still have to maintain them, he said.
“We couldn’t just simply walk away from them,” Leisure said.
After years of underfunding and a growing public outcry over the declining condition of Texas’ state parks, the department saw a boost in funding during 2006 but faced more cuts during the economic downturn of 2011.
Extreme summer temperatures in 2011 cut into park attendance and contributed to costly and damaging wildfires in some parks.
The 95 parks under the department supervision comprise a combined area of 625,000 acres of forests, prairies, mountains, deserts and beaches. The financial problems led the Parks Department to issue a public plea for assistance in 2011 that brought in about $2 million and helped it close a $4.6 million budget gap.