In this era of political upheaval there is one thing all Texas voters should be able to agree on: approving Proposition 5 on Nov. 5 is a good thing for Texas state parks, and in turn, Texas.
The thing is, Proposition 5 in a way does not do anything that should already be done. Texas has had a so-called Sporting Goods Sales Tax since voters approved it in 1993. It was always intended to go toward improvements and creation of state parks and historical sites. Somewhere along the trail a lot of the revenue coming in from the tax was re-directed to other places in a legislative sleight of hand, resulting in an onerous backlog of needed repairs at the parks and a lack of development of new sites.
Proposition 5, which voters can begin voting on starting Oct. 21, is a state constitutional amendment that simply removes the politics from the process, sending the revenue from the tax completely to state parks and historical sites as voters originally intended.
“State parks and historic sites have been underfunded for decades,” says Janice Bezanson, executive director of Texas Conservation Alliance. “The result has been inadequate facilities, insufficient funds to open new parks, and an $800 million maintenance backlog. Every weekend Texans and out-of-state tourists are turned away from the more popular parks. Proposition 5 will fix this problem.”
The Texas park system should be the welcome mat for the state. With facilities that in some cases are dated back to the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, there are a number of gems within the system that offer visitors a glimpse into the wild Texas.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department operates 95 parks and historical sites within its system. The Texas Historical Commission operates another 30. If approved, TPWD would receive 94 percent of the funding with THC getting 6 percent.
The park system covers more than 630,000 acres and attracts almost 10 million visitors annually.
According to TPWD, the parks system generated more than $891 million in sales activity and had a $240 million economic impact in Texas in 2018.
Closer to home, in 2018 Tyler, Caddo Lake and Martin Creek alone had almost 280,000 day visitors, 70 percent of which visited East Texas from outside the region. Those visitors spent an estimated $5 million on supplies and other purchases with an overall impact of $9.6 million in the region.
But the park system could attract more visitors and generate even more revenue if properly funded, something it has never experienced since the creation of the first site, Mother Neff State Park, in 1921. Many of the parks are bursting at the seams with visitors being turned away at peak times.
Texas currently has a population of 28 million with 84 percent being urban residents. Because of the lack of construction of new facilities the growing demand for parks is not being met.
The department has three new parks totaling almost 45,000 acres on the drawing board awaiting funding, and one scheduled for development in 2020. There is another 17,000 acres waiting transfer to the department for development. With Proposition 5 funding these sites should come online much faster.
Park visitation has also been impacted by delayed and emergency maintenance at some sites. In the last 10 years flooding has created another $100 million in emergency repairs. That has forced some parks to at least temporarily close or be partially closed until funding became available. With dedicated funding parks officials would be able to cover emergency repairs without having to delay regular maintenance.
Some of those regular repairs are not sexy, but things that come with old facilities meeting new demands. There are needs for improved electric systems in trailer camping sites, water systems and sewer systems.
TPWD’s 2019 parks budget was $86 million, $60 million of which comes from its current share of the sporting goods sales tax. Between 1993 and 2017, the state’s sporting goods sales tax has generated between $60 million and $165 million annually for a total of $2.5 billion. During that time, 60 percent of the tax funds were redirected by the legislature.
A legislative fix was attempted in 2015, however, the bill was not well written and what was thought to be a long-term solution turned out to be only one year funding.
While we may always debate right and left politics, there is no question that parks stretching from Caddo Lake to Hueco Tanks to Palo Duro to the World Birding Center-Estero Llano Grande should be properly funded by the money Texans already set aside for them.