To spend or not to spend? That is the $110 million question Gov. Rick Perry says he’s asking the leaders of the Texas State Park system. For years the system has watched as money that voters approved for its operation have instead gone to balance other state budget shortfalls. After years of being forced to operate on a shoestring budget, many of Texas’ state parks have fallen into disrepair.
According to a governor’s spokesman, who was quoted in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story last week, the goal of state departments should be to develop budgets based on need, not available revenues. The comments were in response to the governor’s previous statement that “My concern [is] … the Parks and Wildlife Department cannot effectively spend that money on parks.”
“That money” is approximately $110 in sales tax revenue that is generated annually on the sale of sporting goods. When approved by voters in 1993, the money was earmarked for the state park system, but in short time was allocated to other parts of the general fund by legislators who were attempting to balance the state’s budget. After a series of articles in the Star-Telegram last year brought to light the dire conditions found at many state parks, attention shifted to the sales tax and the fact that it had not been allocated as originally intended. Last week, Perry suggested that rather than spend the money on parks, hunters and anglers should receive a rebate.
There is a flaw in rebate idea, though. If Texas Parks and Wildlife, as well as every other state agency, wrote its budget based on need rather than revenue expected to be created, and operated on those guidelines, the fact that the state is carrying over a $7 billion surplus from the last biennium is moot. That is not “new money to spend” as Comptroller Susan Combs described in a January statement. Instead, like the sporting good sales tax, it should be rebated to the taxpayers - at least if you follow Perry’s line of thinking. Rather than updating legislators about how much they can spend going into the process, the budget should be drafted first with the method of paying for programs coming second. However, it doesn’t work that way.
Instead, the public has made clear that additional state financial support for our state’s park system is important. Although legislators also have to fund more attention-grabbing programs, like education, CHIPS, public safety and the like, the parks are a vital asset to our state. Not just for their natural beauty but also because they are heavily used and serve as economic drivers for the communities in which they are located. State Rep. Jim Keffer has four state parks within his district, including Lake Brownwood State Park, and has been a supporter of additional funding for the state park system while in Austin. He has been a primary co-sponsor of a previous house bill, and is expected to sign onto this session’s bill, HB 6. That bill will likely be discussed in February and would restore all of the sales tax revenue to the park system.
Last year Perry appointed a special commission to study the parks’ funding situation. The group, which included Brownwood’s Brad Locker, recommended restoring the sales tax funding after numerous hearings around the state. Their suggestions matched those from the State Parks Advisory Board, which also recommended restoring the funding from the sales tax. Additionally, both groups found that even with the funding there are still many repairs and renovations that are needed for the park system in order to restore many of the facilities and sites to the condition visitors once enjoyed.
Texans have a history of good stewardship of our land and natural resources. From large to small parks, the public has used the spaces and seemingly has always been willing to invest in their ongoing operation. There seems to be little argument that our state park system needs additional funding in order to continue to operate, or even exist, in a manner that we have come to expect and that we deserve. Many of our legislators realize it, Perry-appointed panels realize it, and depending on the audience the governor seems to realize it. For 14 years taxpayers have made sure that the money is available to sustain a world-class park system in Texas. It’s time for our elected officials to show the same commitment.
Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.