The Austin Chronicle

Salvaging Our Parks

By Amy Smith, September 1, 2006, News

Last year, a bill that would have shored up funding for state parks drew little notice and died quietly in a House committee. But thanks to election-year politics, everyone from Gov. Rick Perry on down is now clamoring for passage of the bill, which seeks to allocate all dollars from the sporting-goods tax to the cash-starved Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The sales tax generates an estimated $100 million annually. Had the measure passed in 2005, that would be one less thing the Legislature would have to worry about in 2007. In any case, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, plans to refile the legislation in the 2007 session, this time with Speaker Tom Craddick's blessing.

Toward that end, a Texas State Parks Advisory Committee last week released a list of recommendations for salvaging the long-neglected state park system. The committee, headed by former Sen. John Montford, an AT&T lobbyist (and father-in-law of Council Member Brewster McCracken), echoed the sporting-goods-tax call and urged the Legislature to issue the rest of the $101 million voter-approved bond money for park repairs, instead of releasing the funds in drips and drabs. Evidence of the Lege's parsimonious funding habits can be found in state parks across the state, including McKinney Falls State Park in Austin, where funding woes keep the park's visitor center closed to the public, except on weekends.

Perry and his gubernatorial rivals, Democrat Chris Bell and indie hopefuls Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman, support allocating all of what's due the park system. Bell lauded the advisory committee's recommendations but said the report doesn't go far enough to reverse the state's longstanding neglect. While state officials have publicly backed off the idea of privatizing some of the parks, Bell says there is nothing in writing that explicitly rules out privatization.

Six Ways to Fix State Parks

In a report issued on Aug. 24, the Texas State Parks Advisory Committee recommended taking the following steps:

Dedicate all revenues generated by the sporting-goods sales tax (about $100 million annually) to the Parks system.

Free up the remaining $46 million in park maintenance bonds that voters approved in 2001.

Consider transfers of existing parks to local governments, but only in cases where the state would achieve significant savings.

Pursue land acquisitions and development of new parks.

Work with nonprofit groups to maximize donations of private lands and dollars.

Increase emphasis on public-private partnerships.

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