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Bill on park funds deserves support

We don’t know many people who are always happy with how their tax dollars are spent — complaining about the spendthrifts in Washington and Austin always makes great water cooler conversation.

Most of us believe we could do a better job of if we controlled the purse strings, and we’re not shy about saying so.

But advocates of Texas state parks are especially hot — and with good reason — about reports that legislative budget cuts could force some parks to close, even though portions of the money earmarked to support park programs has been routinely appropriated to certify the state budget.

Park advocates thought the funding problem had been addressed with a dedicated sales tax on sporting goods that was approved when the legislature stopped funding parks with a portion of the cigarette tax in 1993. By 2007, parks were supposed to get 94 percent of the taxes collected on tangible goods meant for sport, with the exception of most active wear and shoes.

But the legislation also allowed for the sporting goods sales tax to be appropriated. The money can, and has been, used to certify the state budget.

According to data gathered by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, the Texas Legislature has never used the full 94 percent of sporting goods sales tax that was intended for parks. The closest it ever came was in 2010, when parks got about 60 percent of the tax. In the past few years, the agency has received about a quarter — or less — of the tax.

Now, park advocates are bracing for another round of budget battles. Officials with Texas Parks and Wildlife asked the legislature for $18.9 million more than the base recommendation in order to avoid closing about 20 parks. When the Legislative Budget Board released its recommendations recently, an additional $6.9 million was recommended for the agency — a figure that, at least on paper, could still mean shuttering about seven parks.

To address the problem, state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, recently introduced a bill to eliminate the original legislative language that allows the sporting goods sales tax to be used to certify the state’s budget, stating that it is time to affirm our commitment to the conservation of parks with the proceeds that taxpayers give for that purpose.

We agree. Rerouting funds generated by the sporting goods tax has been costly to Texas parks, which consistently rank near the bottom in per capita funding compared to other states, according to Ian Davis with Keep Texas Parks Open.

That’s difficult to understand when you consider all the recreational and educational benefits offered by parks. Maybe we’re old fashioned, but we’d prefer to spend some of our spare time outdoors instead of staring at video games, so it seems to us that park funding is money well spent.

And we’re not alone. Take a look at visitation figures for Ray Roberts State Park, and you’ll see what we mean. Ray Roberts is one of the most popular parks in the state, according to the latest figures from Texas Parks and Wildlife. Combined paid visits last year to both Isle du Bois and the Johnson Branch totaled more than 272,000 people.

It’s too soon in the state’s biennial budget battle to predict what will happen, and it’s not clear how any budget cuts would affect Ray Roberts Lake State Park, but we encourage legislators to keep state parks high on their funding priority lists.

We’d hate to think of packing up to visit our park, only to find the gates locked.

That’s not much of a family outing.