Having served as the executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in the 1990s, I’m acutely aware of the chronic funding shortfall for Texas’ magnificent state and local park system.
One of the most important things I learned during those years was that our parks, while preserving the best of our natural and cultural heritage, are also a critical part of our state’s infrastructure — just like highways, state buildings and other facilities essential to our economy and well-being. Each of our state parks is basically a small city with wastewater treatment plants, numerous buildings, roads and restrooms. That infrastructure is expensive to build and in constant need of repair.
Historically, our parks were funded by dedicated taxes on cigarettes, and as I used to say, that meant good news and bad news. The good news was that fewer people were smoking. The bad news: That funding source steadily declined, and our parks suffered. Thankfully, with the support of former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, funding for Texas parks was shifted in the mid-90s from cigarette taxes, a declining revenue source with no connection to outdoor recreation or historic preservation, to a portion of the sales taxes collected on sporting goods, a source directly related to parks that would grow along with park use and establishment.
The legislation clearly meant for the funds from what is generally called the sporting goods sales tax to be fully dedicated to state and local parks in Texas. But that has never happened because legislators over the years have diverted that money to other things.
In 2007, the Legislature again attempted to grant the statutory allocation of most of the sporting goods sales tax collections to Parks and Wildlife, carving off a small portion for the Texas Historical Commission. But some of that money has been used to balance the state’s budget, resulting in the allocation of only about 40 percent of the funds.
Now, with my successors facing a huge backlog of deferred maintenance on park infrastructure, securing dedicated funding is the agency’s highest priority. And with the support of Speaker Joe Straus, the Texas House has responded by approving HB 158 by state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, which would firmly dedicate future appropriations of the sporting goods sales tax exclusively to state and local parks. House members, as well as a Senate committee, have overwhelmingly supported the measure because it would restore truth in budgeting — a priority of conservative Republicans — and ensure that our state and local parks are secure.
As the bill advances in the Senate, lawmakers should remember that the legislation would be transformative for Texas, which ranks near the bottom in parks funding nationally. It would also move the needle on truthful and transparent budgeting and preserve many of our most significant historical and natural resources for future generations.
Not to mention it would ensure that Bullock is smiling down on all of us.
Disclosure: The Texas State University System is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was a corporate sponsor in 2012. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.