Save the date. November 5.
That is when Texas voters will go to the polls with a chance to vote on a state constitutional amendment that finally sends all the revenue from the state’s sporting goods sales tax where it belongs — state parks and historical sites.
Thanks to the lead of Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Rep. John Cyrier of Bastrop, the Texas Legislature passed bills calling for the constitutional vote. It will be the second, and hopefully final time, Texans have to vote on the issue.
The first time Texans thought they provided state parks with a secure funding mechanism was in 1993. That was when the penny-a-pack tax on cigarettes was replaced by a tax on certain sporting goods items. But there was a loophole. Spending the money taken in by a tax had to be appropriated by the legislature. It wasn’t. Or at least completely. Once they saw how much was coming in, the bulk of the fund was pirated and used elsewhere in the game known in Austin as a balanced budget.
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 funding disappeared, or at least never found its way into the budgets of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department or the Texas Historical Commission as intended.
A legislative fix was attempted in 2015 and the department identified $800 million in needs. However, what was thought to be a long-term solution turned out to be only one-year funding, and the repair backlog grew.
“The constitutional amendment would automatically appropriate the revenues from the sales tax on sporting goods equipment to fund state parks and historical sites. It is important to note, this is not a new tax. These sales taxes are already collected,” explained Janice Bezanson, Texas Conservation Alliance Executive Director.
In a change from the historical lack of legislative support, this time the bills were co-authored by every state representative and two-thirds of the Senate.
If approved, the amendment would authorize 94 percent of the revenue going to TPWD’s parks and historical sites and 6 percent going to sites under the Texas Historical Commission.
“It would take a two-thirds vote of both houses to reduce the level appropriated to state parks and historical sites in a specific biennium,” Bezanson explained.
TPWD operates 95 parks and historical sites of its own around the state. The system covers more than 630,000 acres and attracts almost 10 million visitors annually. Its 2019 budget is $86 million, $60 million of which comes from its current share of the sporting goods sales tax.
Unfortunately, its budget has not allowed the department to keep up with needed repairs, upgrades of facilities, some of which are almost 90 years old, and development of new parks. In just the last 10 years, the department has experienced more than $100 million in flood damage to park’s facilities around the state. That is on top of repairs already needed.
“The future is indeed bright for Texas State Parks. Visitation levels for the state park system continue to rise, and with that growth comes corresponding increases in the cost of doing business,” said Rodney Franklin, director of Texas State Parks. “Unfortunately, in the past, we were at a strategic disadvantage because we were only able to plan two years at a time, and often, those plans were drastically changed due to frequent natural disasters. With that, the proverbial can was kicked down the road year after year. A constitutional dedication is a game-changer.”
Franklin noted that fully dedicated funding from the sporting goods sales tax would guarantee revenue to keep facilities in working order despite unexpected emergencies.
“To do this, we will look at improving our operational capabilities in the form of both additional staff and resources where needed, and we can begin making real progress toward chipping away at a long list of capital construction and deferred maintenance projects that include everything from building renovations to restroom replacements, wastewater treatment system improvements, new fishing piers and boat ramps, and cabin remodels,” Franklin said.
If all goes as planned, the agency will begin its new era by developing a strategic plan to expand funding to take care of the most pressing news. To be transparent and to keep the public informed of where the money is going, the department will post a list of projects on its website and updates on completion.
The department also 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 increased funding, these sites will come online much faster.
Texas’ parks should be a greeting card for state residents and visitors alike. Stretching from border to border, north to south and east to west, they offer not only a chance to enjoy the outdoors, but also a way to learn about the different regions in the state. At least they should, and hopefully will, once the sporting goods sales tax money begins to flow.
“Texas’ State Parks are overflowing with visitors. Some parks have to turn away visitors every weekend. The November passage of the constitutional amendment will be a game-changer for Texas State Parks, giving Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff the resources they need to maintain a stellar state park system,” Bezanson said.
TPWD’s Franklin added, “This is an incredible opportunity for the department, and we are very appreciative for the commitment the Texas Legislature and state leadership have made in the future of the state parks system. Now, it’s up to the people of Texas to decide what the next hundred years will look like for their Texas State Parks.”