WESLACO — A white peacock butterfly alights on the delicate lavender-colored blossoms of a Gregg’s mistflower bush growing in a tangle with Turk’s cap and other butterfly-friendly flowers at the entrance to Estero Llano Grande State Park on Wednesday.
Down a red brick-paved lane shaded by a canopy of more of the flowering shrubs, a pair of birdwatchers pause to observe another butterfly before heading on, cameras and high-powered scopes in tow, toward the expansive wooden deck that greets park visitors at the end of the lane.
It’s peak season at the park, with the fall migration of birds, butterflies and damselflies attracting ecotourists from across the U.S. to the Rio Grande Valley, one of the most biodiverse places in the country. And business is booming, with some 8.6 million people visiting a Texas state park in the last year — approximately 1 million more visitors than a decade ago, according to officials from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
However, the state park system has for years struggled to keep up as the influx of visitors, combined with an insufficient and unpredictable funding system, taxed an aging infrastructure system. But state lawmakers are hoping a proposed ballot measure will help remedy that, making the allocation of funds for state parks a permanent fixture of the Texas Constitution via Proposition 5.
One of 10 proposed constitutional amendments on the state ballot this November, Proposition 5 would — if passed — guarantee a permanent revenue stream for Texas’ more than 90 state parks by ensuring that money generated from sales taxes on sporting goods would go almost entirely to TPWD.
It was in 1993 that lawmakers first passed legislation to allocate the revenues from sporting goods sales taxes to fund state parks and the Texas Historical Commission.
The vast majority of the revenues, 94%, were slated to go to TPWD, with the remaining 6% going to the THC. The allocation was meant to replace a 1-cent tax on cigarettes that had previously been used to fund the parks.
However, nearly every biennium since then, a significant portion of those revenues have instead been diverted to balance the state’s general fund. It wasn’t until the 2015 legislative session that 100% of TPWD’s portion of the SGST actually went to the state park system.
Then, in the 2018-19 biennium, only 89% of the sales tax revenues made their way to TPWD, according to a financial overview the agency published this January. In all, less than half of the $2.4 billion in sporting goods sales taxes collected between 1993 and 2017 were ultimately allocated to TPWD.
In 2019, TPWD had a total budget of $419 million to staff and operate some 95 state parks, 50 wildlife management areas and over 1.4 million acres of land.
That diverted funding has meant parks across the state have had to put much-needed maintenance and repairs on hold — repeatedly — as they await the funding lawmakers promised them decades ago.
“We just keep pushing it back,” said Javier de Leon, superintendent of Estero Llano Grande State Park. “We keep deferring it to other years. So right now, the estimate is $800 million in deferred maintenance for state parks.”
Too, the funding shortfall has meant TPWD has been unable to open new parks, despite having new land ready to be opened to the public. De Leon estimated the department had four or five properties “waiting in the wings to get opened” as state parks, including a 17,000-acre property near Port O’Connor that officials hope to make available for hunting and recreation.
If passed, Proposition 5 would ensure that 100% of the SGST revenues would be allocated to the state parks and the historical commission, as originally intended in 1993. It would ensure that the funding would be more than just a legislative promise but a permanent allocation by encoding it into the state’s constitution.
“We want to make sure that if there’s funding dedicated for a certain agency, that it be utilized for that,” said state Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, District 39, Wednesday evening.
Martinez spoke of the legislature’s efforts over the last two legislative sessions to end funding diversions — from funds being directed away from transportation and education, to focusing this year on righting the allocations meant for state parks.
“When we go back for Proposition 5 and making sure that that funding is dedicated for parks, it helps us … not only expand our parks, but upgrade them and do the necessary things that are needed for our parks,” Martinez said.
The proposed ballot measure received overwhelming bipartisan support in both state legislative bodies this spring.
“We can all agree that these special places are vital to our economy and to our heritage, culture, and way of life,” said state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham via a statement Wednesday.
Kolkhorst co-sponsored the resolution along with state Rep. John P. Cyrier, R-Lockhart.
“Supporting our state parks and historic sites is an investment in our future and provides a gateway to the outdoors for every Texan,” Kolkhorst said.
ESTERO LLANO GRANDE
For Estero Llano Grande, the revenue stream would give the park a shot in the arm.
At just 231 acres, it’s the smallest of the Rio Grande Valley’s four state parks, which include Falcon, Resaca de la Palma, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Parks. But, it’s a haven for migratory birds and its variety of habitats ensure there’s always something new to see.
“It feels a lot bigger than 231 acres,” de Leon said, adding that 25,000 people visit Estero each year.
But, the visitors and the current funding sources aren’t enough, the park superintendent explained. “The park does not run in the black,” he said, despite receiving more than $503,000 in funding this year.
“That’s why this is important, because, at a certain point, the quality and the value of some of these places starts suffering because there’s just so much you can do with appropriations,” de Leon said of the current funding process, which can fluctuate from legislative session to legislative session.
De Leon explained that Estero Llano Grande is fortunate to be one of the newer state parks, having been open just over a dozen years. That means its infrastructure remains in good shape, though there are always wish list items.
Should Proposition 5 pass, it could mean more campground space at the park in the future.
“There’s 850,000 people in Hidalgo County, and in the county, there’s 30 campsites,” de Leon said. All of those are in the Mission area.
With more funding, officials at the Weslaco-area park could consider adding camp space in the Mid-Valley — perhaps 20-30 “primitive” camp spaces, de Leon said.
It’s an idea one local environmental activist is keen on.
“Estero Llano Grande has purchased an RV park that’s adjacent to their land and could very easily develop that into a real campground, such as you would see, for instance, in Garner State Park or Guadalupe State Park,” said Stefanie Herweck, a representative of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.
“I’m excited for the potential to have more opportunities for people to get to see the Rio Grande Valley nature because there’s so little of it left and so much of it is protected in these few state parks,” Herweck said.
Early voting continues this week through Friday, Nov. 1. Polls will remain open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day but Sunday, Oct. 27, when they will be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5.