Parks in Peril
Think of Texas’ current debate over park funding – or lack thereof – as a tale of feast and famine. With the stuffing and starving, however, going on at the same time.
The famine victim in this picture is the Texas parks system, which, according to the director of the Texas Progress Council, has suffered during the tenure of Republican Gov. Rick Perry. The gov’s call for the parks department, along with other state agencies, to trim 10 percent from its budget, on top of woefully inadequate parks funding over the last several years, Glenn Smith said, is forcing state agencies to explore selling park and wildlife sanctuary land to make ends meet, closing some parks, and further reducing operations at others.
Smith said that while the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has dieted, Perry has laid on a feast for his two pet funds, asking for more than the parks department’s annual budget for the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Fund. The situation has worsened, Smith said at a recent Austin press conference, even though there’s a relatively simple financial fix for the parks’ starvation regimen.
Smith charged that 12,000 acres of the Black Gap Wildlife Management adjacent to the Big Bend National Park, swapped with the General Land Office, have been offered for sale, even though the land borders a section of the Rio Grande designated by the federal government as a Wild and Scenic River. His group released a brief video about the area (“God’s Country: For Sale,” on the web at www.txprogress.org).
It should be noted that Smith isn’t a Perry fan to begin with. The former newspaper reporter managed Democrat Tony Sanchez’ 2002 campaign for governor against Perry. The rich Laredo banker and entrepreneur was beaten soundly by Perry.
But Smith’s current organization is adding to a growing drumbeat by Texans concerned about the dismal status of the state’s parks. Anticipated budget cuts in the face of rising costs may force 18 of the state’s 120 parks to close or severely trim operations. (For a listing, go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/newsmedia/hot_topics/operational_changes/.)
Smith said the starving-parks problem can be solved by removing the lid of $32 million that Parks and Wildlife can receive from the sales tax on sporting goods. The tax brings in about $100 million a year, but the parks department’s share of it was capped in 1993, as the department was moving from a share of the declining tobacco tax to the sporting goods tax for part of its financing.
In recent years, as Perry chose to balance the state’s budget by cutting services rather than increasing taxes, legislators didn’t even give Parks and Wildlife the full $32 million. Yet due to inflation, the $32 million would have to be more like $45 million today to provide the equivalent buying power.
George Bristol, president and executive director of the Texas Coalition for Conservation, said state parks are great economic engines. Even though Texas ranks 49th among the 50 states in per capita spending on parks, studies show Texas parks generate economic activity topping $1 billion a year, Bristol said.
Maybe the heat of an increasingly disgruntled populace, and dozens of critical news media reports, have helped Perry see the light.
“He has told reporters that he has been concerned about the adequacy of funding for state parks,” press secretary Kathy Walt said. “[H]e does think that that [sporting goods] tax should be dedicated to parks.”
She said the legislature sets the budget, not the governor. The ultimate source of funding has yet to be determined, she said, “but the governor wants to see a world-class park system, and the legislature needs to provide the funding that allows them to preserve those lands for generations to come.” She said the proposed 10 percent cut in agency budgets is still valuable for finding efficiencies.
Meanwhile, even as restrooms in some parks are falling into disrepair, Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick has solicited more than $1 million from lobby interests to spiff up the speaker’s apartment in the capitol – including putting in two $1,000 toilets.
The renovation will benefit all Texans, Craddick said – even though the apartment is closed to the public. Like some parks may be in the future.
Veteran Texas journalist Dave McNeely can be reached at email@example.com.