Tuesday, August 22, 2006
$46 million in dedicated funds held up
STAR-TELEGRAM AUSTIN BUREAU
AUSTIN — An additional $46 million in dedicated hunting and fishing fees has been withheld from the cash-strapped Texas parks system by state lawmakers, despite pleas from an agency facing scores of layoffs, deteriorating facilities and the proposed sale of 400 acres of parkland near Fort Worth, top park officials said Monday.
Lawmakers and Gov. Rick Perry have already come under fire for withholding funds generated from the sale of specialty conservation license plates and for capping a sporting goods tax dedicated to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Parks and wildlife officials say the $46 million can’t be spent directly on parks but only on game wardens, law enforcement and other activities related to wildlife preservation. Agency officials have requested much of the unappropriated money from legislative budget writers, but so far the requests have gone unheeded.
“We have asked for a little extra help,” said Gene McCarty, deputy executive director of the agency. “We have a lot of vehicles that need to be replaced. . . . I have a real obligation to keep my people in decent equipment to respond to needs.”
The latest revelations come after recent Star-Telegram findings that park facilities are closed and operations have been curtailed throughout the 600,000-acre system — all the result of financial neglect by Texas lawmakers.
The unspent $46 million is part of a state fund that includes revenue from hunting and fishing licenses, boat registration fees and federal taxes on hunting and fishing gear. About $90 million from state sources flows into the fund each year, plus millions more from federal sources.
The Legislature has used some of that money to help shore up the agency’s $155 million annual budget. However, lawmakers also have held part of it back each year in an apparent accounting maneuver to help balance the state’s overall budget — leaving the $46 million balance.
An official with the Texas comptroller’s office said the practice is common in state government.
A top legislative budget writer recently told the Star-Telegram that the practice probably will continue. “We will be looking at all of these dedicated accounts next session,” said state Rep. Jim Pitts, chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee.
Meanwhile, the stewardship of public lands continued to roil the Texas governor’s race Monday, with Democratic challenger Chris Bell calling for Perry to take money from a special business fund he controls and use it on parks.
Bell also accused the Republican governor and the Legislature of playing a “shell game” by not appropriating the unused parks and wildlife funds.
“It’s our money and not using it for the stated purpose is fraud,” Bell said. “Sportsmen are some of the best conservationists that Texas has, and they gladly pay that money because they think it goes to fund game wardens and hunting and fishing areas.”
But a spokesman for Perry said the governor also opposes diverting dedicated funds. “He believes that if the Legislature is going to have a dedicated fund for a special purpose, then the money should go to that purpose or the tax should go away,” said spokesman Robert Black.
Black also rejected the call by Bell to redirect money from the governor’s business fund, known as the Texas Enterprise Fund, to use on parks. Perry has spent millions from the fund to lure businesses to Texas.
Black said Perry wants to find extra money for parks when the Legislature convenes in January, but not from the Enterprise Fund. “It sounds like Chris Bell wants to cut off his nose to spite his face — he wants to sacrifice job creation for parks,” said Black.
Bell also criticized Perry for the proposed sale of 400 acres of parkland at Eagle Mountain Lake near Fort Worth. Bell called for a moratorium on the sale or privatization of all parkland at least until the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Perry authorized the Eagle Mountain sale in a letter from his office Dec. 19. As a condition, Perry’s budget director said that all proceeds must go back to the parks department and that the agency must maintain mineral rights.
But Bell said that given the track record of Perry and the Legislature, he doesn’t put much faith in that pledge. “Where’s the guarantee?” asked Bell.
A spokeswoman for the governor said Perry consented to the Eagle Mountain Lake sale only after the property went unused for several years. When asked whether the governor still supports it, she said the decision is now up to Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.
But spokeswoman Kathy Walt also said “the governor is interested in hearing all the options from the local community, from the parks commission . . . and that ultimately a decision that is in the best interest of the state and the community that uses the parks land in that area is reached.”
A spokesman for Patterson said the agency may still find a buyer for all or part of the Fort Worth property, although the transaction has been put on hold temporarily at the request of Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Joseph Fitzsimons, who has asked for a 120-day delay.
Fitzsimons said he requested the postponement to work out a possible deal to preserve the Eagle Mountain Lake property as a park.
Hairy Perry is at it again. It the old Republican Hoorah for profits and to Hell with the Texas people.
Chris Bell appears to be the only candidate with enough gumption to confront Perry and the Republican dominated Legistlature on this issue.
Terry D. Barhorst Sr.
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