Funding Texas' Parks and Wildlife: No Walk Through the Park

Parks may finally get more funding, but advocates are wary of shifting some assets to the Texas Historical Commission

Texas' parks last week came one step closer to seeing the funding they need to reverse years of budgetary-shortfall-induced decay as the House of Representatives passed House Bill 12, which would lift the cap on Parks' funding source, the state sporting-goods tax, fully devoting the approximately $100 million the tax generates to state and local parks. The measure also lays the groundwork for the controversial transfer of 18 historic sites from Parks and Wildlife Department purview to the Texas Historical Commission. The two actions were initially separate bills, both filed by Kerrville Republican and House Culture, Recreation, & Tourism Committee Chair Harvey Hilderbran, later fused together to the chagrin of many parks advocates – chapped by the lack of public discussion and planning surrounding the historic site transfers, not to mention the appearances of sending control of the sites to an organization headed by beer-distribution-baron, GOP benefactor, and Speaker of the House Craddick crony John Nau, who strongly favored the move.

Lone Star Sierra Club director Ken Kramer, among troops of statewide advocates battling for park bucks, expressed "cautious optimism" over HB 12's passage, explaining that it's unclear whether the Senate, its Finance Committee, and the lieutenant governor will be as monetarily enthusiastic as the House. While "it's good that House Bill 12 identified a funding source," Kramer reminded that the park money must actually be appropriated by the House. A 2006 state advisory committee said an additional $85 million was needed to "restore parks to a state of excellence," as Kramer puts it. But if legislators deliver some but not all of those clams, it could be worse that getting nothing at all, he said, given the difficulty of reintroducing such a high-profile issue in a subsequent session.

As for HB 12's historic-site transfers, Kramer says more external public review and comment is needed, especially near the sites' respective locations. He said park protectors are also apprehensive of shipping scarce parks money to another agency and are concerned over duplication when it comes to historic sites now classified as parks and parks that include historic sites. An amendment adopted last week by Austin Rep. Donna Howard will require the Historical Commission to prepare comprehensive operating plans for sites being transfered, to be reviewed by an independent committee.

Culture, Recreation, & Tourism Committee staffer Therese Kerfoot said the sites in question "don't have park aspects," and the THC can better handle the promotion of their historic aspects, restorations, and the overall improvement of attendance. A press release from the speaker's office assured that "the THC specializes in historic preservation and manages some of the most effective preservation programs in the nation, including the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, the Texas Main Street Program and the Texas Heritage Trails program."

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