Critics say Legislature underfunding Texas parks

AUSTIN -- Draft state budgets unveiled by House and Senate leaders this week recommend less than half the amount requested for full funding of the state park system, heightening fears of possible park closures.

Officials with the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife have warned that Texas may be forced to close up to 20 parks unless the Legislature grants an additional $18.9 million for the next fiscal biennium.

The starting point budgets released on Tuesday fall short of that request, recommending $6.9 million. Proposed funding levels would be enough to sustain only 84 of the 91 state parks now in operation, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, cautioned that it "is simply way too premature to talk about park closures" and said his agency will continue to press for additional funding as lawmakers intensify budget deliberations in the coming weeks. "This is simply the first serve in a long tennis game," Smith told the Star-Telegram.

But the leader of a coalition formed to prevent park closures expressed alarm about the recommendations.

"Our state parks face a dire situation," said Ian Davis, director of Keep Texas Parks Open, a coalition of park supporters who have been waging a statewide awareness campaign to head off park closures.

The Star-Telegram reported Sunday 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.

Davis described the draft budgets as "disappointing" and said the recommendations "may lead to the closure of parks." TPWD officials say the state has about 95 parks and historic sites but the Legislative Budget Board listed only 91 as being in operation at the start of the year.

The $6.8 million would be from sales tax receipts on sporting goods items, a method of financing that the Legislature created in 1993 to help pay for parks. Parks supporters have complained that lawmakers frequently divert the sporting goods revenue for other purposes, undercutting funding for the park system.

"If the sporting goods sales tax was used for its intended purpose, we would not be facing this dilemma," said Davis. He said State Comptroller Susan Combs has projected that the sporting goods sales taxes will generate $268 million in revenue over the 2014-15 biennium that starts Sept. 1.

The $18.9 million sought for parks was part of a $103 million funding boost that the department requested in addition to its base operating budget. The legislative budget recommendation accepted the department's base budget request of $507 million but substantially slashed the request for additional expenditures on items such as capital equipment, construction and fish and wildlife funding.

The House document granted only $36.1 million of the $103 million, and the Senate proposed $8.5 million. The draft recommendations rejected the department's request for $15.5 million to restore grants to local parks.

Parks officials said the draft budgets actually represent an improvement over past spending recommendations at this point in the Legislature.

"Candidly, this is a much better starting point than we've seen in past sessions," said Smith. "At this stage of the session, we're guardedly optimistic about the budget."

Smith said TPWD officials will present their case to lawmakers in hearings next month before the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. "We look forward to working with the Legislature over the course of the session to address fully the needs of the state park system, and my sense is they're listening intently," he said.

Leaders in both chambers of the Legislature acknowledged that the draft proposals are only a first step in the budget process and will undergo substantial revision as lawmakers work toward preparing a final budget to run state government in the next fiscal biennium.

House leaders are calling for $187.7 billion in spending over the next two years, while the Senate version proposes $186.8 billion.

Reflecting a directive from Gov. Rick Perry, the budgets essentially take a hold-the-line approach to spending and are substantially below robust revenue projections available to lawmakers for the upcoming fiscal 2014-15 fiscal biennium that starts in Sept. 1.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram