Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Budget News
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) budget news is mixed. Both the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees expressed their distaste for closing any state parks. Consequently, the state parks budget received a great deal of scrutiny from many legislators.
Both Chambers introduced initial budget bills that included more funding for TPWD than the biennium’s base budget of $507.2 million. At the base level, up to 20 state parks faced closure, the local parks grant program would continue to receive zero funding, there would be additional staff lay-offs, and funding for wildlife protection programs would continue to decline. In order to avoid these and other devastating impacts at TPWD, the department requested $610.3 million: the base budget plus 6 so-called “exceptional” budget items, or budget items the TPW Commissioners deemed necessary to fulfill TPWD’s mission.
One of the TWPD exceptional items would restore $15.5 million to the Local Parks Grant Program, which was zeroed out last session. The 81st Legislature appropriated $30 million for Local Parks Grants. Over the years, municipal and county park programs have benefitted from this program by leveraging their funds and donations with state dollars to acquire and improve local parks. Since 2011 no local parks grants have been issued and TWPD has suffered deep grant program personnel cuts.
Neither the House nor the Senate has sent a budget bill – HB 1 and SB 1, respectively -- to the floor yet, but the Senate working groups and House subcommittees with jurisdiction over Article VI of the budget, which includes funding for TPWD programs, have finished their initial deliberations. At this point, the “Restore State Park Funding” exceptional item, which includes funds to prevent state parks closures and perform cyclical maintenance, looks secure in both bills.
Unfortunately, other important exceptional items are not so secure, including the Local Parks Grant Program, which remains unfunded in both bills. The $15.5 million exceptional item was moved to Article XI (basically a waiting list) in HB 1, and tagged as a “secondary priority” in the Senate Finance Committee. By moving the Local Parks Grant Program to Article XI, the House has signaled it will still consider funding the program, but only if additional funds become available later in the session.
Capital funding levels for major repairs are also uncertain, since $32 million of the $40 million request involved funding from general obligation (GO) bonds. Another legislative workgroup is handling bond funding decisions.
Bills Would Benefit Non-Game Wildlife (SJR 60 and HJR 135
We have good news on the non-game wildlife front. The Chapter greatly appreciates the work of Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and his staff to draft and file legislation (SJR 60) that would benefit non-game wildlife programs of TPWD and a host of non-profit agencies. Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) has filed the companion bill in the House (HJR 135. Chairman Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) agreed to joint-author the bill. The bills are joint resolutions, which mean if they pass with two-thirds vote in each chamber and are not vetoed by the Governor, Texans will then have to vote to amend the Texas Constitution in order for the appropriations commitments to take effect.
Since last November, the Lone Star Chapter has advocated that legislation be drafted and passed by the Texas Legislature which generally states:
“If the source of revenue of a dedicated revenue account is that of voluntary contributions from the public, then the funds in that dedicated revenue account will be automatically appropriated to the purpose and to the recipient for which the contribution was intended.”
The most visible examples of voluntary contributions are the specialty license plates fees. Four of these plates (horned lizard, bluebonnet, bass, and deer) fund TPWD conservation programs. The horned lizard plate is especially important to the support of the Wildlife Diversity (non-game) program, which has consistently been underfunded. Also, with the assurance of automatic appropriation, there is an incentive to develop a strong marketing program to grow such donations over time.
Special license plates benefit many non-profits. Examples range from the Animal Friendly plates which are used for spaying & neutering to the Knights of Columbus and the March of Dimes.
TPWD Acquisition & Development Budget Rider Survives in Article XI
Although TPWD did not request any Acquisition & Development (A&D) funds for state parks, the Sierra Club believes that the state parks program would greatly benefit from a minimal A&D budget that would satisfy the dictates of fiscal prudence while allowing TPWD the flexibility to pursue opportunities to enhance existing state parks and increase public access to undeveloped park inventory. Rep. Sergio Munoz (D-Mission), serving on the House Appropriations Sub-committee on Article VI with jurisdiction over TPWD funding, shared our concern and introduced a budget rider that would satisfy this need.
TPWD requested an appropriation of $25 million during fiscal years 2012-2013 for Acquisitions and Development (A&D), but the 82nd Legislature appropriated $0 for A&D. This situation has existed for several sessions of the Legislature. The Chapter believes there is a real need for “small” acquisition money, as well as BIG acquisition money, and, therefore, this year’s budget should include a reasonable level of acquisition funding.
“Small” acquisition money could be used to take advantage of opportunities to expand boundaries of EXISTING state parks. The expansion of existing state parks is the most cost-efficient use of acquisition funds. The major park infrastructure is already in place, as are the park personnel. TPWD has not been able to take advantage of these opportunities because of the lack of any acquisition appropriation. Furthermore, a small acquisition budget could also be used as a match for federal funds.
There is also a need for planning and development funds so that major state parks currently closed to the public can be opened – at least on a limited basis.
Davis Hill SP near Houston, Palo Pinto SP between Fort Worth and Amarillo, Big Devil (southern unit) of Devils River State Natural Area, and the Kronkosky property in Bandera & Kendall Counties are not open and have no schedule to open.
The budget rider introduced by Rep. Sergio Munoz and placed in Article XI by the House Appropriations Sub-committee reads as follows:
A minimal land acquisitions budget of $ 1,500,000 per year for FY 2014-2015 and
an additional $1,750,000 per fiscal year for planning and development of parkland previously acquired which has yet to be developed. Up to $100,000 per fiscal year may be used to pay for an additional FTE in planning and development.
Although Article XI funding is contingent upon funds becoming available later in the session and requires further approval, it means this important item is still alive. Many thanks to Rep. Munoz!