The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission on Thursday approved a 2014 budget that includes increased funding for state parks and added personnel, something that even a year ago seemed unlikely.
The Parks and Wildlife Department’s fiscal year 2014 operating and capital budget totals about $380 million, including about $272 million for salaries, related benefits and operating expenses, about $30 million for grants and close to $75 million for capital items.
The budget is an increase from the 2013 budget of $357 million, but is a far cry from the $423 million framework in 2011. The state budget bill also increased TPWD’s employee count by 103 full-time positions, bringing the overall department full-time figure to 3,109.
The budget reflects appropriations approved by legislators for the 2014-15 biennium, which authorized additional funding requested by the agency in six exceptional items. Those were:
- For TPWD’s first exceptional item requesting about $18.9 million for state park operations, the final state budget included close to $17.9 million.
- For the request for $11.9 million for capital budget priorities such as replacement vehicles and computers, the state budget included $10.4 million.
- For the request for $40 million for capital repairs and construction, the budget included $8 million for Fund 9/fisheries and wildlife facility capital construction and $11 million in bonds for repairs at any existing TPWD facility.
- The budget provided TPWD’s entire request for $13 million for important fish and wildlife funding. This includes $4 million for quail habitat enhancement.
- The budget also included all of TPWD’s request for $15.5 million for local park grants to cities and counties across Texas.
- Regarding the request for $3.7 million for state data center cost increases and information technology needs, the budget provided a total of about $1 million.
Lawmakers also provided other two-year funding for the department, including:
- Rider 27 allows the agency to carry forward as much as $5.5 million from 2013 into 2014. It also provides increased appropriations of as much as $2 million, if the agency is able to bring in revenue above the state Comptroller’s biennial revenue estimate from sources such as state park fees and hunting and fishing license sales.
- Rider 41 provides $2 million over two years for an interagency contract with Texas A&M University to help bobwhite quail. This will develop educational resources and programs to reestablish quail populations based on research-proven best management practices, plus fund various quail research efforts. In addition, as described above, lawmakers appropriated another $4 million in exceptional item funding for quail habitat enhancement, making a total of $6 million for quail in 2014-15.
- Other riders will fund $700,000 in capital construction for cabins, bridges and trails at Fort Boggy State Park and visitor center improvements at Big Spring State Park.
- Rider 10 appropriates an estimated $1 million during the next two years expected to come from sales of four TPWD conservation license plates (horned lizard, bluebonnet, deer and bass) that benefit state parks and fisheries and wildlife work. The specialty license plates have raised more than $6.3 million for conservation causes.
- Lawmakers also allocated $5.2 million to replace a damaged helicopter needed for game warden operations and fish and wildlife survey work.
During the session, legislators also approved supplemental funding for TPWD using 2013 dollars. This includes $5 million for state park capital repairs, close to $4.9 million for Bastrop State Park wildfire recovery, and $889,000 in state park operating funding from motor vehicle registration opt-in donations approved in the previous legislative session.
A year ago, TPWD faced a $4.6 million gap in its park system operating budget, prompting the agency to try a number of strategies to raise revenue. Included in that was seeking corporate sponsorships.
The Commission previously approved a $332.3 million budget for the first year of the 2012-13 biennium. By comparison, the agency’s budget the first year of the 2010-11 framework was $468.8 million.
TPWD is funded through a mix of general revenue, federal and other funds, including through the Game, Fish and Water Safety Account, also known as Account 9. That revenue is generated through hunting and fishing license and stamp and permit sales, as well as federal funds appropriated specifically for hunting and fishing restoration purposes and boat registration and titling fees.
A general-revenue dedicated account, the State Parks Account, generates funds through entrance and use fees at state parks as well as receiving a portion of state sales tax revenue on sporting goods purchases.
The other large revenue stream for the agency is the General Revenue Fund, which consists mostly of allocations of sporting goods sales tax.