One of the big things the Lege did accomplish this time around was to provide more funding for state parks, both in terms of removing a cap on the amount of revenue from the sporting goods tax that could be appropriated to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, then actually appropriating a greater amount to TPWD. Chron outdoors writer Shannon Tompkins did a good summary of what parks bill HB12 and the budget did:
- TPWD will see an increase of $25.6 million in funding for park operations and authority to increase parks division staff by 229 employees. Over the past couple of years, as funding problems became more severe, TPWD had reduced park staff by more than 100.
- The agency stands to lose about 60 parks staffers in a Legislature-mandated transfer of 18 historic sites (and their staff) currently in the state parks division. The 18 sites will be transferred to the Texas Historical Commission.
The THC also will receive about $6 million a year in sporting goods sales tax revenue to operate the transferred sites.
- The Legislature appropriated as much as $44.1 million for major repairs to state parks. About $17 million of that is bond money Texas voters had approved for that purpose in 2001, but that the Legislature had refused to appropriate.
The remaining $27 million would come from issuance of new general obligation bonds, predicated on voters approval of a bond proposition on the statewide ballot this November.
- Local park funding will be increased to $15.5 million per year -- the same level allowed under the $32 million cap, but about $10 million more than the Legislature has appropriated over the past two years. The $15.5 million will be used in a grant program whereby local governments apply to TPWD for matching grants to help fund local parks.
The grants are awarded using a standardized scoring system designed to rank projects, reducing opportunities for political pressure to influence agency decisions on which projects receive funds.
- Legislators appropriated about $16.7 million for grants to 18 specific local park projects, none of which will have to go through TPWD's standard, competitive grant scoring process. Included in the list of mandatory park grants are $3.75 million for 11th Street Park in Houston and $1.5 million for Spring Creek Parkway in Harris and Montgomery counties -- and two parks named after current or former members of the Legislature.
- TPWD will be allowed to use the $9.6 million the state received for the sale of undeveloped Eagle Mountain Lake State Park near Fort Worth for purchase of land for another state park. But the agency can use the funds to purchase park lands only if the acquisition is approved by the state's Legislative Budget Board.
The Legislature also appropriated about $4.3 million that TPWD can use to acquire inholdings and land adjacent to current state parks.
- TPWD will operate under a legislative mandate to improve its business practices, including meeting the recommendations included in a report on TPWD issued this year by the Texas State Auditor's Office. TPWD executive director Cook said he welcomes the increased scrutiny and performance goals the Legislature is placing on the agency as a condition of increasing the parks division's budget.
"The Legislature was very good to us, and we just couldn't be happier with the budget they've given us," Cook said. "But we also understand we have a huge responsibility to use those funds effectively and efficiently."