Wrapping up a seven-city tour of the state, the environmental advocacy group Environment Texas made its final stop at Mission Concepción in San Antonio on Wednesday to promote the passage of Proposition 5, on the ballot for the Nov. 5 statewide election.
Proposition 5 calls for a constitutional amendment that will require the money from sporting goods sales tax in the state to be used only for Texas state parks and historic sites. That has been law since 1993 when the Legislature approved it, but in reality only about 40 percent of the $2.5 billion collected in sporting goods sales tax over the last 26 years has actually gone to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, according to Anna Farrell-Sherman, a representative with Environment Texas who spoke at the event.
Farrell-Sherman said the tax revenue has frequently been pillaged by the Legislature over the years to fill funding gaps, which has left Texas state parks with an increasingly long list of desperately needed repairs and projects totaling almost a billion dollars.
While camping at various state parks over the past week, Farrell-Sherman said she learned that every single park she stayed at had an urgent project or repair that was unfunded.
“I think one of the most striking was Monahans Sand Hills State Park,” she said.
“Their bathrooms are sliding down a hill and have been closed for the last two years because they don’t have the funds to repair those restrooms. That is not the sort of thing that we can have in a state park system that is vibrant and working for everybody.”
The measure appears to have been a rare bipartisan effort in the Legislature, with every single member of the Texas House signing on as a joint or co-author, and two-thirds of the Senate joining on as co-authors of the bill, which then passed unanimously, according to David Yeates, chief executive officer of the Texas Wildlife Association, who also spoke at the event.
Since no new taxes are being proposed, there appears to be no real opposition to the amendment, and the Legislature wrote the bill with what Yeates called a built-in pressure valve that allows a two-thirds vote in both chambers to reduce the park funding to 50 percent for one biennium at a time, but it would be required to return to 100 percent after that period.
Even that 50 percent funding would be higher than what it’s been since its inception, Yeates said.
“Philosophically there are those who are skeptical of taking away the flexibility of the Legislature,” Yeates said. “But, candidly, that flexibility of the Legislature’s been the problem. We’ve got $750 million of deferred maintenance in the Texas parks system and we’ve reached a point of crisis here with collapsing infrastructure, parks being closed. Being loved to death is the problem.”
Most of the state parks are anywhere between 40 and 90 years old, Yeates said, and he believes the State needs the built-in discipline of having money dedicated to the state parks that cannot be diverted away in the case of a natural disaster or other emergency.
If the measure passes, environmental and parks advocates will certainly rejoice, but just how much money they can count on every year is still uncertain at this point.
Typical yearly revenue from sporting goods sales tax can range from $250 million to $300 million, said Joseph Fitzsimmons, founder of the Texas Coalition for State Parks, who also spoke at the event.
“These things go hand in hand,” Fitzsimmons said. “If you go and buy a kayak, you’re going to expect to have a place to go put it in the water.”
Yeates estimated that if they could have at least 10 years of the sporting goods sales tax revenue pouring into the Texas state parks and historic sites’ coffers, they might begin to catch up on the backlog of projects.
The law allocates 94 percent of the sporting good sales tax revenue for state parks and 6 percent for historic sites. Local parks and historic sites can also apply for grants to access the funds, which Phil Hardberger Park has done a couple of times, according to Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas.
Early voting for the Nov. 5 election begins Oct. 21.