Politicians are amateurs when it comes to grassroots politics; the real experts are bureaucrats.
Our 181 part-time Texas legislators make $600 a month, stand for election every two to four years, and are scheduled to meet regularly only five months every other year. State bureaucrats number in the thousands. Their jobs are full-time and year-round. Many last thirty years. The number of legislators with thirty years experience can be counted with a few fingers on one hand.
A lesson in political acumen is being taught by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. TPWD has been particularly successful lately in rallying public support for more funding – even when the taxpaying and outdoorsy public really doesn’t benefit.
For example, TPWD itself once proposed that the 25-mile Texas State Railroad be sold. As tourist surveys are passed out at that facility, though, the Legislature is verbally blamed for threatening its existence. A bill in the last special session proposed almost a million dollars in new funding for the railroad. Now, TPWD wants to keep the railroad but is asking for only $650,000 to keep it open. The amount actually necessary may be far less, but only the TPWD really knows. Right now, the railroad costs taxpayers well over a million dollars a year.
TPWD has used the so-called sporting goods tax to fan the flames and rally proponents, claiming it is supposed to be getting almost $70 million per year in more funding that it currently receives. But there is not truly a unique tax on sporting goods. The state gets about $100 million per year from the sale of sporting goods due to the 6.25 percent sales tax that applies to most retail items.
Some years ago TPWD was partly funded by a dedicated tobacco tax that was shrinking. The legislature changed the dedication but capped it because TPWD’s funding would have ballooned astronomically. Besides, such a total tax dedication would have made no more sense than the tobacco tax dedication that preceded it. Only a tiny percentage of sporting goods sold in this state are ever used in state parks.
For the most part the TPWD’s lands are owned outright by the state, though there are some long-term leases from the federal government. The department pays no property taxes. While private hunting ranches and RV parks manage to pay taxes and make a profit, the TPWD loses taxpayer money on the majority of its facilities without tax costs.
To be sure, there are some facilities, such as the San Jacinto Monument, Goliad, and Enchanted Rock, that few Texans would argue should be self-sufficient. But what about Indian Lodge, a 39-room hotel built by the CCC during the Great Depression? It has assigned to it 23 salaried and 10 hourly employees working 30 to 40 hours a week. No wonder it had to be financially propped up with $90,000 in taxpayer funds in 2005. With labor costs like that, Marriott would be belly-up in a week.
At the same time, how does McKinney Falls State Park – inside the Austin city limits – lose money? One way is that the historical house on the property is inaccessible unless visitors have a boat or are willing to get wet.
TPWD does not do enough to promote the assets it has. A lot of beauty in many parks is inaccessible to anyone but the hardiest of backpackers. Further, it charges too little for those facilities in high demand. To be successful, TPWD should sell those lands in low demand and let the market make better use of the property.
Often, the department fails to fully exploit existing facilities even as it seeks to create more. Indian Lodge could easily be privatized, to allow better use of taxpayer resources.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is a state-owned enterprise that is a drag on state finances, but only because it chooses to be. If a more market-based, consumer-oriented approach were adopted, Texas taxpayers, campers, tourists – and wildlife – would be better off.
Byron Schlomach, Ph.D., is the chief economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan research institute based in Austin.