The parks department is already reeling from budget cuts made in the past two legislative sessions, and last week the Legislative Budget Board told state agencies to cut their budget requests another ten percent. Parks officials and park supporters are alarmed, because hundreds of parks employees have been laid off, parks are cutting operating hours, some have closed, and others are charging admission for the first time. Former Parks Director Andy Sansom says the park system can't take any more budget cuts.
"I think that if we come out of this session with only the current level of funding maintained, then we're gonna see some more parks closed, and we're gonna see some more of the infrastructure of the system break down."
Sansom says he and others are trying to remind state lawmakers of the fact that the parks department is unique among all state agencies, because it's the only agency that, when healthy and properly funded, generates new money for the state through tourist dollars. It's the goose that lays golden eggs.
"The second or third largest industry in the state is travel and tourism. It may be headed toward being the largest single contributor to our economy. And part of the infrastructure for that, an important part of the infrastructure for that is the state park system."
Millions of people who visit Texas state parks every year are finding parks that are in serious disrepair, and Sansom says the state has to reverse this decline and do it soon, because it won't take long for word to get around the country that Texas parks are in terrible shape and people will stop coming. Sansom says he is optimistic though. The situation is so bad it's attracting attention all over the state, and a lot of people are talking about it and letting their state lawmakers know how they feel.
"There is a bit more legislative interest in solving the problem than I think I've seen in quite a while."
Andy Sansom and 13 other prominent Texans have been appointed to a new State Parks Advisory Board, which has the task of finding new funding options for the park system. It's looking for parks functions that can be privatized or turned over to other appropriate entities, and it's looking at expanding the role of public-private partnerships, including concessions and private sponsorships. The Advisory Board will present its recommendations to the legislature when it convenes in January. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.