The stakes are higher than ever in the upcoming legislative tussle for state park funding in Texas.
The gates on 20 parks could be shut and locked if funding isn’t restored in the next session. Texas already ranks last nationally in state park acreage and per capita funding. With a demographic shift to urban centers, this is not the time to turn our backs on a growing disconnect between people and nature, the Corpus Christi Caller Times reported in an editorial.
During the 2012-13 Legislative session, state parks took a $21 million hit, exacerbated by devastating wildfires, drought and a resulting 25 percent drop in park visitation. This came on the heels of 5 percent funding cut the previous biennium.
Water-based parks in the west and south were particularly hard hit because of shriveling reservoirs and streams, dry boat ramps and news reports of red tide at coastal parks.
Jobs were lost. Programs were cut. Camping opportunities were lost. Park gates closed.
The park system could have struggled through the natural disasters had the Texas Legislature not siphoned off revenue from sales tax on sporting goods earmarked for parks to help balance the state’s budget. This is nothing new. For the previous two-year budget cycle, this so-called dedicated fund was projected to generate $236 million. In the end, the amount that remained for parks was a dismal $52.1 million, leaving the state with a falsely-created balanced budget and TPW officials begging for cash.
The upcoming fight for the 2014-15 budget resumes with predictions of no additional funding, which could result in closures. Texas Parks & Wildlife is asking the Legislature to restore $18.9 million and for the return of more than 120 employee positions during the next two years.
The Texas League of Conservation Voters-Educational Fund, with support from the Meadows Foundation, will soon launch a campaign called Keep Texas Parks Open to supplement park funding with private donations.
This campaign will attempt to educate Texans about the crisis facing parks and how it came about, while reminding folks of the economic, social and conservation benefits of parks. The organization will launch a statewide poll in January to gauge attitudes on park funding and benefits.
The other half of the campaign simply urges folks to make a tax-deductible donation before Dec. 31 so the contribution can be listed on their 2012 tax returns.
Meanwhile, State Rep. Lyle Larson, of San Antonio, has promised again to push for a measure to reclaim sporting goods tax revenues for their dedicated purpose.