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Texas parks, libraries, arts, historical sites facing deep budget cuts

06/10/2011 11:30 PM

06/11/2011 6:27 AM

While the Texas Legislature's deep cuts to education funding have sparked a public outcry, the budget knife slashed even deeper for state agencies that focus on outdoor recreation, libraries, history and the arts.

Lawmakers axed $4 billion in funding for education -- slightly less than 10 percent of the $42 billion the state was supposed to provide under current law.

But in the waning days of the session, legislators sliced more than 20 percent from Texas Parks and Wildlife, 50 percent each from the Texas Commission on the Arts and the Texas Historical Commission, and nearly 64 percent from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

The agencies will have to eliminate jobs and cut programs, affecting Texans in a variety of ways.

The Parks and Wildlife Department had $145.46 million, or 20.8 percent, sliced out of its two-year budget.

]That will mean the loss of 169 to 260 of its more than 3,000 employees, Executive Director Carter Smith said.

"We have been operating on a lean basis already, and these new numbers will require significant reductions in programs and services," he said.

The cutbacks will be noticeable to outdoor enthusiasts, he said. Among them:

Hours will be reduced in six or seven parks and operations modified in up to 25 parks. Smith hopes that no parks will be closed.

All funding will be eliminated for controlling the spread of invasive aquatic species.

Cities and counties will lose $40 million in funding for local park grants.

Anglers might have to make a few more casts because of a reduction in production at state hatcheries that stock fish in streams and lakes.

Bird hunters will be affected by a "significant reduction" in funds for habitat management, research, and monitoring of upland and waterfowl species.

"Our services are going to be different than in the past," Smith said.

Severe blows

The smaller state agencies absorbed even bigger fiscal wallops.

With a loss of about $3.7 million, the Commission on the Arts faces a 30 percent staff reduction, taking it down to 12 employees. The agency awards grants, promotes the arts and provides expertise to the arts and cultural industries.

It could have been worse. In January, Gov. Rick Perry proposed suspending arts funding for two years.

Perry also recommended shuttering the Historical Commission, which administers 20 state historic sites, heritage travel programs and the nationally recognized Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program.

Lawmakers funded the agency but reduced its operating budget from about $50 million to $25 million per year. The staff will shrink by about 20 percent, from 221 to 174.

Existing courthouse preservation projects will continue, but there will be no funding for new projects over the next two years, spokeswoman Debbi Head said.

Historic sites will maintain their current hours, but staffing will be reduced at all 20. Fewer tours will be offered, maintenance work will be deferred, and staff and visitors will interact less, Head said.

The Library and Archives Commission, which handles distribution of funds to public libraries and maintains state records and historical materials, will see funding shrink from a projected $19.75 million this fiscal year to $7.35 million in 2012 and $7.01 million in 2013, spokeswoman Lynne Margolis said.

The cuts will also result in the loss of an estimated $850,000 in federal funds, she said.

This year, the agency awarded $6 million in Lone Star Library grants to 542 public libraries statewide. Next year, the program is zeroed out.

Funding for the TexShare database system was cut from $8 million to $2.5 million, which will affect schools and libraries statewide, Margolis said.

Perry has until June 19 to sign off on legislation, and he could still use line-item vetoes.

Heads of the affected agencies tactfully say they will soldier on and work with what's left.

"Even with the reduction in funding, the Texas Commission on the Arts will continue to provide grants and services to constituents throughout the state, but at a reduced level," Executive Director Gary Gibbs said.

Mark Wolfe, executive director of the Historical Commission, was equally diplomatic.

"The THC is a nimble and professional agency fully capable of remaking itself to meet budgetary restrictions while simultaneously providing the best service possible. ... Of course there will be unavoidable reduction in services. ... But with few exceptions, every program currently provided by the THC will continue to be available at some level."

Economic driver

Supporters of the agencies weren't so ambassadorial.

Jody Ulich, president of the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, called the cuts to the arts commission severe and shortsighted.

"Every dollar invested in arts comes back fourfold. It's a huge economic driver for cities and the state. If we lose it, it goes somewhere else," said Ulich, noting that the state arts commission gave her group $13,000 for operations and $30,000 in grants to disburse to other arts organizations.

Texas historian T.R. Fehrenbach of San Antonio said Perry's proposal to eliminate the Historical Commission "would have been foolish."

"This is one of the state agencies that actually increased the Texas economy by attracting heritage tourists through the courthouse preservation program and heritage travel programs," said Fehrenbach, a THC commissioner emeritus. "These cuts will slow those programs down."

The cuts are a concern for the travel industry, said Janice Langlinais, director of communications for the Texas Travel Industry Association.

"The arts and historical commissions and the Parks and Wildlife Department are tasked with promoting tourism inside the state. For every dollar those agencies spend to market tourism, $6 is returned in tax revenues," Langlinais said.

At the state library, Margolis worries about future intellectual capital.

"Our motto is preserving yesterday, informing today and inspiring tomorrow, and I worry that we might shortchange the future.

"The next Steve Jobs, Michael Dell or Ann Richards might not find the information or inspiration they need to become the next great inventor or stateswoman or even a good productive citizen."

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

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