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.
“We knew this was going to be a very fiscally constrained session going into it,” agency Executive Director Carter Smith told Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioners at a workshop Wednesday. “The opportunities for growth were going to be an uphill challenge at best.”
Beyond its normal budget, the agency had asked for at least $75 million to address deferred maintenance — the agency estimates it actually needs hundreds of millions of dollars to fix aging, failing infrastructure; the Legislature has agreed to provide $17 million.
Some of the money will go to hatchery projects; the rest will not fund anything new, instead acting as a backstop for the roughly $65 million in construction projects already underway at state parks.
“We spent a lot of time working with the Legislature on what would be a 10-year funding plan to address priority needs for the state park system getting ready for our centennial in 2023,” Smith said.
But projects to improve water and wastewater facilities at parks across the state, including Pedernales Falls and Colorado Bend, will have to be deferred.
The reconstruction of undersized visitor facilities at Inks Lake and other state parks also will be on hold. The development of new parks, 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, also has been paused.
Lawmakers met the agency’s $23.9 million request for more state parks operations money with a zero. The agency had requested the money to meet its explosive growth — it nowhas roughly a million more visitors annually at its parks than it did in 2011.
“What we want to do is provide affordable and safe and quality experience for families that come to visit our parks,” Smith told commissioners. “We’ve got to have the resources to be able to do that.”
The Legislature also brushed off the agency’s request for $31.5 million to upgrade aging boats and other equipment for its law enforcement division; instead, the agency got $1 million.
But the Legislature did fork over the full $11 million request for border security work and the full $49 million for weather-related repairs to state parks.
“You can quickly ascertain what the Legislature felt was really a priority,” Smith told the commissioners. “Clearly they told us the priorities for funding were border security funding and emergency, one-time related repairs.”
Finally, the agency had lobbied the Legislature to ensure that tax revenue raised through the sale of sporting goods, such as kayaks and tennis rackets, be largely dedicated to the Texas 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.
But House Bill 78, by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, which would confirm that the state parks department gets 94 percent of sporting goods sales tax revenue, has not made it out of committee.
“We have some real challenges going ahead,” Smith said.