Give Texas state parks their money to stay open

Posted Saturday, Feb. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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If ever golden words rolled off the tongue of a Texas lawmaker, it was Wednesday in a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee.

"I just want to publicly say that I'm not interested in seeing any state parks closed," said Sen. Tommy Williams, the committee's powerful new chairman.

As they say, it's good to have friends in high places.

"We're going to work with you guys to try to solve this problem," Williams, R-The Woodlands, told officials of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Star-Telegram Austin bureau chief Dave Montgomery caught the statement for his report on the committee meeting.

That's not a promise from Williams, but it's as close to a thumbs-up as anyone in his position can give at this point in the budget-writing process. Budgets usually aren't finalized until nearly the last day of a legislative session. This year's session ends May 27.

Parks and Wildlife has requested $18.9 million in its 2014-15 budget to avoid closing as many as 20 state parks.

An early Senate version of the budget contains only $6.9 million. Tina Beck, an analyst with the Legislative Budget Board who is helping shepherd the department's budget through the session, told the committee that the early amount would keep only 11 of the 20 threatened parks open.

The remaining parks and one of the department's regional offices still might have to be closed, Beck said.

Of course, the heart of this discussion is the question of where the additional money would come from. That's always a frustrating issue in Austin.

This year, even though forecasts say there will be an $8.8 billion balance left over at the end of the current budget, plus an expected $11.8 billion balance in the state's rainy-day fund available for spending in 2014-15, top state leaders including Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus are trying to keep a lid on spending.

Conveniently, there is a way out of this dilemma if Williams and other legislators really intend to "work with" TPWD.

That's because Perry and the other top state officials also have been singing from the same page of another songbook. They all say they want to end budget tricks like the "diversion" of money raised for one purpose but shifted away to be spent on something else.

This is a perfect time to make that happen.

One of the most popular words at the Capitol these days is transparency. The best time to make the budget process more transparent is when money is available to pay for eliminating budget tricks.

When the Legislature authorized a sales tax on sporting goods in 1993, the revenue was supposed to be dedicated to state parks. Since then, the tax has raised $1.9 billion but only $661 million of that total has been spent on parks, according to the Texas Coalition for Conservation.

In most budget diversions, money not spent for its dedicated purpose is shifted over to the general fund to be spent on other things -- or at least made available to make it look as if the general fund is fat enough that the adopted budget can be described as balanced.

Either way, parks have suffered.

Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security Committee and vice chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, has filed a bill to end diversion of sporting goods sales tax revenue.

State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, has filed a similar bill.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has proposed a constitutional amendment to end the diversion of all statutorily dedicated funds, including the sporting goods sales tax.

It does pay to have friends in high places.

It's important to have friends in low places, too. Poll results released last week by a parks advocacy group showed that 87 percent of Texans place special importance on parks, even in a tough economy.

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