Parks funding in tough terrain
By John Austin PHP State Reporter 14 hrs ago
Planning is underway for Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, 80 miles west of Fort Worth, but lawmakers left Austin without appropriating $25 million in sporting goods sales taxes to build it.
The much-heralded 4,391-acre project is one of five sites, already owned, that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department can’t develop for lack of funding at a time when visitation is rising steeply.
“Last year was a record year,” said George Bristol, former chairman of the Texas State Parks Advisory Committee. “It’s projected an 18 percent increase in visitation this year over last year.”
James Adams, who on Thursday began work as superintendent at the Palo Pinto site, said planners could finish their work by January 2019.
But the dedicated revenue stream that would help turn the sites into useable parks and nature areas — utilities, fishing piers, equestrian trails, cabins and other amenities — failed to materialize, despite a bill meant to ensure it.
The 2015 bill, hailed as a landmark, dedicated 94 percent of general sales-tax revenue attributed to sporting goods to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
A related bill was passed in the same session that “essentially gave flexibility to spend dollars where they are most needed for parks,” according to the TPWD website.
But no one realized until a few months before the 2017 regular legislative session that the related bill negated the language that would have made funding permanent.
“They were patted on the back in editorials all over the state of Texas for dedicating 94 percent for state parks,” said Janice Bezanson, executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance. “The famous bill that got us state-park funding forever got us funding for two years.”
In addition to Palo Pinto Mountains, west of Fort Worth, the four new planned parks are Albert and Bessie Kronkosky near Austin and San Antonio, Powderhorn on the coastal bend, Chinati Mountains in far West Texas and Davis Hill near Houston, according to TPWD’s website.
“Those are all things we were hoping to get into the development stage,” said Josh Havens, the TPWD’s communications division director.
If the 2015 bill that lawmakers intended to pass had actually taken effect, $313.5 million would have gone into TPWD accounts in the upcoming biennium, Bezanson said.
But because the language was negated, only part of the tax money, lawmakers were free to appropriate less and only $277.6 million will go to the department.
About $49 million of the money the department did receive is slated for repairs at state park facilities damaged by weather events in recent years.
The $36 million TPWD would have received, had the permanent funding been put in place, can be used for unrelated items.
No new funds were appropriated in the 2018-19 budget for planning, design or construction of new park sites, Stephanie Salinas Garcia, a TPWD spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Bezanson said lawmakers “didn’t even make a half-hearted attempt” to fix the oversight in the 2017 session.
Proposals authored by Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, aimed at correcting the mistake died during the regular 2017 legislative session.
“Although many in this legislative body have repeatedly and erroneously touted the notion that sporting goods sales taxes have been dedicated to our parks and historical systems, this session’s failure of HB 78 and HJR 16, and the diversion of nearly $40 million in sporting goods sales tax away from parks in the budget, paint an entirely different picture,” Guillen said in an email.
In Strawn, about three miles from the site of the Palo Pinto site, Michael Orsini, the former city secretary, said folks were “disappointed deluxe” to hear that money to build what would be an economic asset wasn’t coming from Austin.
“The town was excited,” Orsini said. “We were really hoping to get some funds this last legislative session.”
As for existing park facilities, Bristol said that they’re beginning to get overcrowded.
As visitation escalates, there could be partial closings at the very time that people want to visit and “enjoy what they’ve already paid for,” Bristol said.
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org://www.palestineherald.com/news/park...3ba5486984.html