Funding for Texas Parks in Limbo

AUSTIN, Texas, October 31, 2008 (ENS) - Warning of a continuing crisis in Texas parks and natural areas, the nonprofit advocacy group Environment Texas is calling on a stalled legislative task force to meet and develop a plan "to stop raiding parks funding for other purposes."

"With severe damage to several parks from Hurricane Ike, sprawling developments threatening natural areas, and years of funding shortages leaving our parks in disrepair, now, more than ever, our state and local parks need proper funding," said Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger.

"What's infuriating is, the money is already there, it's just being diverted to other purposes by the Legislature," he said.

Since 1993, the state of Texas has funded the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in part through a tax on sporting goods. Although this tax produces more than $100 million in revenues per year, legislators in 1995 capped the funding for the department at $32 million per year - unadjusted for inflation.

In 2007, the Legislature used mainly general revenues and new voter-approved bonds to almost triple funding for the parks for two years. But the lawmakers did not lift the cap permanently, deferring the issue to an interim committee to decide.

That four-member committee, the Joint Legislative Task Force on Sporting Goods Sales Tax, has not convened a single meeting, although it is expected to issue a report no later than December 15, 2008.

The interim committee is composed of state Senators Kip Averitt of Waco, Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, and Tommy Williams of The Woodlands, all Republicans, as well as Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa of McAllen, a Democrat.

The task force is supposed to review the definition of "sporting goods" in the Tax Code. It will determine the amount of sales tax revenue that must be generated from the sale of "sporting goods" to fund state parks, local parks, historic sites, coastal management programs and water planning.

Environment Texas is calling on state lawmakers to create stable and substantial funding for state and local parks by permanently removing the cap on the sporting goods tax and creating a major land acquisition program to meet the state's growing demand for outdoor recreation and to protect critical natural areas and water resources.

A report released by Environment Texas in September evaluated the experience of 15 states in securing reliable funding for open space programs. The report, "Preserving Our Natural Heritage," shows that America lost 21.6 million acres of forests, fields, and farmland to development from 1992 to 2003 - an area larger than the state of Maine.

To stem this tide, several states set up programs to buy up remaining open space before it is lost to the next subdivision. For example, since 1991 the state of Florida has provided more then $2 billion in funding to protect natural areas as part of the successful Florida Forever program.

By contrast, in 2006 a state parks task force reported that Texas had not had a major land acquisition program since 1967.

In 2007, the Legislature only appropriated money for acquisition of new parkland from the sale of existing parkland and appropriated some funds to add land to existing parks.

"With the real-estate market still reeling, Texas has a chance to protect our cherished landscapes at bargain prices," said Metzger. "But without stable funding schemes, we are missing this historic opportunity to protect our natural heritage."

Funding shortfalls at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also affect the ability of local governments to protect open space, Metzger points out.

Historically, the department has devoted just over one-half of its revenues from the sporting goods tax to provide grants to local governments for the acquisition and development of local parks facilities. Yet, since 1993, the state agency has had to reject more than 60 percent of local government applications because of a lack of funding.

At its meeting November 6, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission will vote on $16.6 million in appropriated matching funds approved by the 80th Legislature for local park grants, funded by the sporting goods tax.

With a little over $2 million these funds, the City of McAllen would develop an environmental center at Quinta Mazatlan Nature Center Park, in the southeast area of the city and install improvements at Firemen's Park to include lake aerators, canoe docks, campsites, a boat staging area, outreach center, utilities, landscaping, irrigation, roads, parking and fencing.

With $1.6 million the City of Houston would develop Sylvester Turner Park to add baseball fields, pavilions, trail, playground, wetlands boardwalk, outdoor classroom and parking. Houston also will develop Townwood Park to include a swimming pool, tennis court renovation, trail, landscaping, drainage, walkways, lighting, and fencing.

{Photo: Overlook at Big Spring State Park located within the city limits of Big Spring in Howard County. (Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department)}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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