New work to address overdue repairs at Texas state parks and efforts to open new parks to the public appear to be on hold after lawmakers at the Capitol have signaled unwillingness to give more money to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Despite rapid growth in park visitation, development of new parks, including Palo Pinto Mountains west of Fort Worth and Kronkosky State Natural Area, about 100 miles southwest of Austin has been put on hold for the next two years in the recently passed state budget. Projects to improve water and wastewater facilities at parks across the state, including Pedernales Falls and Colorado Bend, will have to be deferred. Reconstruction of undersized visitor facilities at Inks Lake and other state parks also is on hold. This delay in park development and improvements comes at a time when state parks are growing in popularity. State Parks had nearly 9 million visitors last year, an increase of more than 500,000 people from 2015. Popular parks like Garner, Enchanted Rock and Balmorhea have had to close due to overcrowding and users have experienced long wait lines to get into parks.
Alongside increases in visitation come increases in the cost of doing business, with added wear and tear on facilities and rising costs for supplies and increased demand for utilities, garbage service and other necessary services. These costs are coupled with the demands on overworked staff and volunteers, but no additional funding was provided for the actual day to day operation of parks.
The backlog of repair and maintenance needs has been well documented in recent years, as the age of our parks and the backlog of needed repairs continues to grow. In 2015, the legislature appropriated more than $90 million towards these needs, enabling the department to begin to address this problem. Unfortunately, this initiative was also frozen in the new budget and no new projects were funded to address this well-known issue. In the one bright spot for state parks, more than $49 million was included in the budget to address weather related flood damages at places like Lake Ray Roberts, Bastrop, Lake Somerville, Lake Whitney, Stephen F. Austin and Cedar Hill.
Two years ago the Legislature passed and Governor Abbott signed into law a bill dedicating 94 percent of the Sporting Goods Sales Tax for state and local parks in the future. HB 158 affirmed that 94 percent of the Sporting Goods Sales Tax (SGST) was to be used only for state and local parks. Up until that time, since the creation of the SGST in 1993, only 36 percent of the revenues collected were appropriated by the Legislature for state and local parks. The remaining 64 percent was diverted for other programs unrelated to parks, or to artificially balance the state budget. In the meanwhile, park usage and the need for greater maintenance and repairs on an aging system skyrocketed. While the current budget does appropriate much of SGST revenues to the state park system, millions of dollars available and desperately needed for parks has once again been diverted to other purposes. In the meantime, needed repairs will be left undone, and known problems will continue to grow and become more expensive to correct.
The Comptroller’s revenue estimate for the 2018-2019 biennium budget shows the SGST will bring in an estimated $333.5 million. Under the tax code, lawmakers should appropriate 94 percent of that for the parks, which would amount to $313.5 million. Yet both the House and Senate have failed to fully appropriate this amount, leaving the Department with a roughly $100 million shortfall.