Texas’ state parks just cannot seem to get a break. Traditionally the state park system has been underfunded, causing Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to be slow at times in responding to general maintenance, needed upgrades and new construction.
In the last decade, some problems were kicked farther down the road by wildfires in 2011 and more recently flooding and hurricanes, but this year there was finally the promising of solid funding approved by state voters in the form of the sporting goods sales tax revenue.
Now that, along with revenue from park admission fees, has taken a hit from the Covid-19 shutdown. It started with the piecemeal closing of a few parks in late March that led to a full closure April 7.
That shutdown included the heavy-use spring break period, which is some of the busiest days at the 89 parks within the system. The parks remained shuttered until April 20 when they were reopened for day-use only by reservation. Only next week will camping be allowed at some sites and that also will be on a limited basis.
“For the month of March, total parks revenue was down about $3.2 million or 49.5 percent in comparison to March 2019,” said Stephanie Garcia, TPWD spokeswoman.
Added to that is the almost complete loss of April revenue, which in April 2019 was about $1.8 million.
Maybe more important than the lost admission revenue was the shutdown of retail stores and reduced sales of certain items that fund the sporting goods sales tax.
In 2019 Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment dedicating 94 percent of the tax from select sporting goods items to the park system with the remaining 6 percent going to the Texas Historical Commission. What voters approved was not a new tax, but the dedication of revenue from an existing sale tax. It was an idea first approved by voters in 1993, but over the years the majority of the funds were hijacked by the legislature for other purposes.
The sporting goods tax revenue, along with entrance fees, was expected to be a much-needed infusion because as recent as 2015 the system had identified $800 million in needs. In 2018 the sporting goods tax had generated $165 million.
But as the saying goes, all good plans of mice and men…
Going into the 2019-20 fiscal year the Texas State Comptroller’s office estimated the sporting goods sales tax would generate about $124.5 million for the year for parks and historical sites, giving TPWD approximately $10.37 million monthly for projects.
However, now the Comptroller’s office is going to revise the annual estimate in July for all incoming state sales tax, and that could result in a major reduction to the funding. The state sales tax revenue overall has already been reported down 9.8 percent for April.
With the funding still coming in, TPWD is continuing construction on projects already begun.
“We will continue working in coordination with our contractors across the state to ensure that projects can be completed safely and without delay,” Garcia explained.
There are a number of projects underway statewide. A short list includes the visitor’s centers at Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso and Mission Tejas State Park in Grapeland.
The state park system is popular, attracting about 10 million visitors annually. It is also massive, covering 630,000 total acres. At this time, there is almost 45,000 acres of new parklands still in the planning stage because of the previous lack of funding. That does not include the 4,400-acre Palo Pinto Mountains State Park that is slowly beginning to take shape west of Fort Worth.
The park would be the first state park to open in more than 20 years. Another 17,000 acres await transfer to the department to ultimately be developed and will require funding as well.
What is different in this setback compared to the past is that it is just that, a setback and not a death sentence. As the economy returns, so will the revenue and that long road maintenance and construction that were kicked down before will not be nearly as long.