The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department won’t see $36 million in promised state money over the next two years even as the agency grapples with millions of dollars in backlogged park maintenance.
In 2015, state lawmakers passed a law to dedicate 94 percent of sporting good tax money to the state parks department, but that portion has fallen to 83 percent — or $278 million — as the state has siphoned money for other uses. Another law gave lawmakers the flexibility to change the percentage in future years.
Efforts to restore the missing money session has failed — even though the department has more than $580 million in backlogged maintenance at 91 state parks that saw 9 million visitors last year, up 500,000 from the previous year.
The Legislature took a stab at relieving some of the deferred maintenance by appropriating $49 million to repair weather-related damage at seven parks and $57 million for other improvements — though with the tight budget cycle, no additional money was given for operations.
“Without the additional appropriations for operations or maintenance projects, the FY18-19 budget for the state park system is going to be extremely tight and may not provide much room to deal with unforeseen incidents or disasters,” said Josh Havens, spokesman for the department. “Additionally, there will not be any funding available for developing and opening new park land for the public.”
The state parks department was relying on the tax money to open land that is already in the park system, including Kronkosky State Natural Area, about 100 miles southwest of Austin, and the proposed state park at Powderhorn Ranch, 160 miles southeast of Austin, along the Gulf Coast.
State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, filed a bill this session that would have ensured that the parks department receives the full 94 percent of tax revenue raised through the sale of tennis rackets, soccer balls, kayaks and other sporting goods. The remaining 6 percent of the tax money is supposed to go toward maintaining the state’s historical sites.
Guillen’s bill never made it to the House floor for consideration because many in the Legislature thought all sporting goods tax revenue was already going to parks and historical sites, Guillen told the American-Statesman.
“The diversion of nearly $40 million in sporting goods sales tax away from parks and historic sites paints an entirely different picture,” Guillen said. “It’s long past time the Legislature put Texas sportsmen’s money where its mouth is.”
Texas parks and historical sites will receive a combined 89 percent of the sporting good revenue, with the other 11 percent flowing elsewhere, including general revenue spending and balancing the books.
Bastrop State Park is among the seven parks that will undergo weather-related repairs. In May 2015, heavy rainfall caused the 102-year-old dam in the park’s fishing lake to collapse, washing out trees, roads, trails and cabins. Other parks that will be repaired include Lake Somerville, about 90 miles east of Austin, and Lake Whitney, about 140 miles north of Austin.