Two years ago, George Bristol, perhaps Texas’ chief booster for state parks, thought he had scored a coup when lawmakers passed a measure that appeared to ensure that nearly all the tax revenue raised through the sale of tennis rackets, soccer balls, kayaks and other sporting goods would go to the state Parks and Wildlife Department.
In theory, the Legislature had long declared that money should go to parks, but lawmakers had been siphoning much of that money for other uses, including general revenue spending and book balancing.
Conservation groups and the parks department were ecstatic at the end of the 2015 session, when Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 158, which dedicated 94 percent of the sporting goods sales tax to state and local parks.
But a Senate bill signed into law that was also meant to direct more resources to state parks allowed appropriators the flexibility to decide how much they actually wanted to fork over.
In short, that kayak sales tax money is not guaranteed to be delivered to the doorstep of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Now Bristol, a 76-year-old who literally wrote the book on politics and parks in Texas, is at it again, like a closer coming out of the bullpen, working the phones and the hallways to get lawmakers to pass another piece of legislation they already thought they had acted on.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reports that it has more than $580 million in backlogged maintenance projects at 91 state parks, from repairs to a New Deal-era bathhouse at Abilene State Park to wildfire-damaged fencing at Bastrop State Park.
“Through the years, we have been able to defer many of these to later dates while appropriate funding is identified; however, eventually those critical repair projects will need to be addressed,” agency spokesman Josh Havens said. “In order for us to be able to consistently chip away at this massive list of deferred maintenance projects across the system, it is crucial to have uninterrupted investment in capital repair and construction.”
The continued questions around parks funding come as state parks are growing in popularity.
Nearly 9 million people visited them last year, an increase of more than 500,000 people from 2015.
“With the rise in visitation comes increases in the cost of doing business,” Havens said, “and appropriations from the (sporting goods sale tax) help ensure that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has enough funding to keep park properties and facilities in working order and allows us to maintain the level of service that the people of Texas expect from their state park system.”
The state parks department is also relying on sporting goods sales tax money to open to the public lands that are 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.
The comptroller’s office estimates that in the 2018-19 biennium, sales tax revenue from sporting goods will amount to $333.5 million. Yet both the House and Senate have failed to fully appropriate this amount, leaving the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department roughly $100 million short of what officials would have expected to receive under HB 158.
“Here we are again, hat in hand, having to beg for what rightfully belongs to all Texans,” said Bristol, the former chairman of the Parks and Wildlife Department’s Texas State Parks Advisory Committee.
Beyond asking appropriators to cough up more sporting goods sales tax money this time, he’s pushing for lawmakers to confirm the dedicated stream of tax revenue into the future.
With parks scattered throughout the state, he is sure to remind legislators of how parks in their districts can benefit.
But getting a law passed on the future dedication of tax money might be an especially heavy lift, given that lawmakers usually shift their attention once they think they have fully addressed a matter.
Still, HB 78, by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, which would confirm that the state parks department gets 94 percent of sporting goods sale tax revenue, has been scheduled for a hearing Thursday before the powerful House Appropriations Committee.