AUSTIN -- The Senate's chief budget-writer is signaling his opposition to closing state parks, boosting the hopes of parks officials and environmental groups who are fighting the potential closure of at least nine sites.
"I just want to publicly say that I'm not interested in seeing any state parks closed," state Sen. Tommy Williams, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told top officials with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on Wednesday.
"We're going to work with you guys to try to solve this problem," Williams said.
TPWD officials have asked for $18.9 million to avoid the closure of as many as 20 state parks. A draft Senate budget grants part of that amount - $6.9 million -- but Tina Beck, an analyst with the Legislative Budget Board, told senators that the partial funding would be enough to only sustain 11 of the 20 parks facing potential closure.
"Up to nine park sites and one regional office might need to be closed," Beck said at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the TPWD's budget request.
But TPWD executive director Carter Smith said after the hearing that Williams' remarks showed parks supporters that they have a powerful ally in their bid to avoid park closures. Williams, a Republican from The Woodlands, took over the committee at the outset of the current legislative session and will be one of the top architects of the 2014-15 budget that will fund state government for the next two years.
"What we heard from the senator is a very strong and genuine interest in keeping all state parks and historic sites open," Smith said. He said he was "very heartened" by Williams' comments.
A poll released Wednesday by a statewide group fighting park closures showed that state parks have widespread public support.
The poll, conducted by Keep Texas Parks Open, said that 87 percent of Texans believe parks are especially important, even in tough economic times. By almost identical percentages, Texans also endorse protecting natural areas and see state parks as essential to healthy life styles, the poll showed.
"It's striking that support for parks remains strong during good times and bad," said pollster David Hill. "Despite our recent economic slump, the poll results actually indicate a slight uptick in parks support."
The Star-Telegram reported in January that state officials have been forced to consider shutting down parks after a succession of past budget cuts, the state's relentless drought, maintenance problems and other factors.
"We have stretched the rubber band as far as it can be stretched," Smith told the committee.
Department officials have not identified which parks would be closed, saying they would need to wait until the budget process is complete before taking that step. If any parks are closed, Smith told the committee, the state would maintain ownership but would suspend operations, significantly reduce staff and close the site to the public.
Smith said it would cost a minimum of $4.3 million over the next two years to keep all parks open, but added that the department also needs $2.4 million to meet employee benefit costs, $4.2 million in preventive maintenance and $1.1 million in equipment for wildfire suppression and law enforcement.
One major contributor to the department's funding problems, say officials, is the continued diversion of revenue from sales taxes on sporting goods that were originally intended to fund state parks.
George Bristol, founder of the Texas Coalition for Conservation, said that of the $1.9 billion generated from the sporting goods tax since it was authorized in 1993, only $661 million has gone to parks.
"There's money there for parks if they would spend it," said Bristol, an attorney who has residences in Fort Worth and Austin.
The poll found that 76 percent of those surveyed support using revenue from the sporting goods tax to buy, maintain and operate state and local parks. Sixty-nine percent said they would vote for a constitutional amendment dedicating those revenues to parks funding.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.