Monday, June 19, 2006

Starve the Beasts - The Dire Straits of the Texas Parks System

An editorial in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Sunday highlighted the chronic underfunding of the Department of Texas Parks and Wildlife.

There's nothing to celebrate about a parks system that is so pathetically underfunded and neglected.....

The system, part of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, has eliminated dozens of positions from an already skeletal staff. It has shut down portions of parks and scaled back programs for children.....

How does Texas rate nationally in support of its parks?
Texas ranks 49th among the 50 states in funding for state parks. With Texas' population pushing 23 million, the state parks annual operating budget is a puny $54.4 million, or roughly $2.37 per Texan - about what you might pay for a small cheeseburger.
At a time when the Texas state government enjoys a surplus of eight billion dollars, support for the park system has gone from bad to worse.

Dabney, the parks director, said operations at 50 parks had to be cut in December and 73 staff positions were eliminated. "We came close to closing one-third of the system," he said.

Now, in addition to its other problems, the park system may have to eat the costs of repairs due to Hurricane Rita.

The reason? According to [Director of the Infrastructure Division] Whiston, FEMA officials cite the state agency's lack of flood insurance, which FEMA requires as a condition for reimbursement.

"We are trying to work with them to see if we could be exempted from that," Whiston said. "We are -- as is typical for a state agency -- self-insured in most cases. And flood insurance on coastal properties is impossible. We're unable to get it."

Since the 1990s, Texas state parks have been funded by a portion of the sporting goods sales tax. But the portion dedicated to the park system was capped, and for the last several years the parks' operating budget has been stagnant. Amid the current funding debate are renewed rumors of privatization.

Last summer, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department commissioners contemplated selling off 46,000 acres of Big Bend Ranch State Park, the largest state park in Texas, to John Poindexter, the Houston businessman who owns the nearby Cibolo Creek Ranch luxury resort. The proposed sale, endorsed by TPWD staff, was pretty
such business as usual for the department, where selling parkland, transferring state parks to counties and cities, and downgrading state parks to “wildlife management areas” are all in a day’s work. But when news leaked out that a chunk of the 299,000-acre state ranch on the Rio Grande was up for grabs, a sudden public outcry led the parks commissioners to reject the proposal–unanimously.

Gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn blasted Governor Perry over the proposal to sell Big Bend, but her record on this issue isn't stellar, either.

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn recently proposed to privatize the Texas State Railroad in her e-Texas publication. Senate Bill 1260, which was filed today in the Senate, would require that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to contract with a private company. The section of the bill states "the department may not operate the Texas State Railroad."

The proposal was ultimately shelved, but funding for the railroad was never resolved, and talks of retiring the train are back on the agenda.

A Texas State Parks Advisory Committee is set to look into the funding issue. A likely recommendation is to raise or eliminate the cap on the amount of money parks can get from the sporting goods tax. The advisory committee has vowed to take their fight to the 2007 legislature, and perhaps they'll find a sympathetic ear. As the FWST editorial noted:

The anorexic parks budget should be greatly increased by the Legislature in its regular biennial session in 2007. This would enable the parks system to add employees, pay for desperately needed capital and maintenance projects, reinstate curtailed programs and buy additional parkland that would prove to be a vital asset in coming decades as Texas' population increases by 50 percent or more.

The problem is straight forward, and the cure is fairly simple, but does this mean we're likely to see a solution next year? To paraphrase the FWST editorial board, we'll believe it when we see it.

4 comments:

c4n3p said...

Carole "4 Names, 3 Parties" Strayhorn is an abhorrent candidate in several respects.

Should you trust her on the question of Texas parks? Here's her own words from her Select Proposals from Challenging the Status Quo:

"Sell or lease surplus state lands. According to the General Land Office (GLO), about 126,000 acres of state-owned lands are substantially underused, some of them in prime development areas. GLO should be ... required to target at least 5 percent of all underused lands for sale each year."

Does anyone need more evidence that Strayhorn is not an acceptable alternative?

Consider Strayhorn’s comments (and refusal to comment) when asked about her views on women’s reproductive rights by the Dallas Morning News:

DMN: Should Roe vs. Wade be overturned?

Strayhorn: I believe in the sanctity of life.

DMN: Are Texas laws too restrictive for adult women? Would you favor adding new restrictions or repealing current ones?

Strayhorn: Declined to answer.

DMN: Should abortion be legal in cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the woman?

Strayhorn: I know there are those extraordinarily tough circumstances where heartbreaking choices have to be made.

DMN: Should pharmacists be allowed to refuse to dispense the “morning-after” pill?

Strayhorn: Declined to answer.

DMN: Should schools limit discussion of pregnancy prevention to abstinence-only?

Strayhorn: Declined to answer.

Consider Strayhorn’s flip flops as reported by the Abilene Reporter News:

School Vouchers - Got a loan of almost $1 million from voucher supporter James Leininger in her 1998 comptroller campaign. But earlier this year, Strayhorn vowed to “veto any type of legislation that puts a single dollar into any voucher program.”

Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) - Called for cutting CHIP spending in 2003, by requiring registration every six instead of 12 months. But in 2004, she blamed Perry’s tight-fistedness for a large drop in enrollment. “It’s time to put children first,” Strayhorn said. “It’s unconscionable that we’re dead last in percent of children on health insurance.”

Toll Roads - Strayhorn called for more toll roads as part of a Texas Performance Review report in 2001 on the Texas Department of Transportation. But since toll roads have become a focus of Perry’s road-building program, Strayhorn said in January that she is “dead set against toll roads.”

Tuition Deregulation - Strayhorn called for it in 2003, but nine months later said a student’s tuition rate should be frozen at what they paid as a freshman.

TAKS Test - She endorsed grade advancement based on testing in 1998. But a few weeks ago, she said she would “scale back the importance of the state’s standardized TAKS test.”

Consider Strayhorn’s corporatist anti-populist agenda as set out in her own words in her “Select Proposals from Challenging the Status Quo”:

“The General Land Office (GLO) should be … required to target at least 5 percent of all underused lands for sale each year….”

“Less confrontational methods of … enforcing environmental laws often can be more effective than traditional, punitive approaches. The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission should aggressively market its Regulatory Flexibility Program to reduce onerous restrictions on businesses….”

“Create a Bill of Rights for business. Every business has the right to expect state agencies to provide … a commitment to streamlining regulations….”

Consider Strayhorn’s bigotry against the Unitarian Universalist church.

Among the seven principles that guide Unitarian Universalists is the belief that we must all respect the interdependent nature of all existence. This belief demands an attitude of tolerance. Never had any state or governmental agency questioned the Unitarians tax-exempt religious status because of this religious philosophy UNTIL Strayhorn became angered by the fact that he Unitarian Universalist church stepped out of line from the common practice of Texas churches endorsing right-wing agendas.

Defying the church’s long history, Strayhorn claimed that the church wasn’t really a religion so she could use that argument as the basis to yank the church’s tax empt status because, in Strayhorn’s words, the Texas Unitarian church “does not have one system of belief.”

Of course, even conservative legal and religious scholars were shocked. Conservative University of Texas law professor Douglas Laycock, who specializes in religious liberty issues, was quick to point out that Texas has not always barred similarly inclusive religions from tax exempt status. Previously, even the Republican Texas Supreme Court had and other Texas courts had rejected this tactic, holding that such a bigoted practice “fails to include the whole range of belief systems that may, in our diverse and pluralistic society, merit the First Amendment protection.”

Strayhorn vowed to fight the Unitarian Universalist church to the U.S. Supreme Court, comparing the church to a “wannabe cult” with members who “dress up and parades down Sixth Street on Halloween.” Just a week after this bigoted statement, Strayhorn reversed her biased decision and gave up her persecution.

If this was not enough to convince anyone that Strayhorn is no sane alternative, remember that as a member of the Legislative Redistricting Board, Strayhorn cast the deciding vote to gerrymander Texas House districts to reward Republicans and punish Democrats.

Vicki said...

I had no idea - thanks! We need to support our Texas Parks.

texas toad said...

c4N3p

Thanks for the synopsis on Strayhorn. We briefly covered the reproductive rights issue in another blog. Search for Strayhorn and that should bring it up, but I doubt the links still work.

Also, here is the link for "Challenging the Status Quo"

http://www.window.state.tx.us/tpr/
tpr5/brieftpr.html

Bradley Bowen said...

I agree with Vicki... we need to support our Texas parks and not let the Republicans get away with what they're doing.

I also agree that Carole Keeton Strayhorn cannot be trusted.