IT’S NOT THE WORST WAY TO SPEND A THURSDAY afternoon—riding a wide pickup around Bastrop State Park with Andy Sansom and Brent Leisure for company. Andy, an old friend, is the executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Brent is the park manager at Bastrop, which means he is the one in charge of the park’s 3,503 acres as well as its thirteen cabins, its 78 camping sites, its meeting hall, its swimming pool, the clubhouse of the adjoining golf course, the twelve-person staff, the gift shop, the maintenance equipment, and the workshop that makes all the wooden signs for all the parks in Texas. He is a tall, polite, calm man who speaks in measured phrases, and he’s proud of the public jewel with which he has been entrusted. But today the three of us weren’t here to marvel at the wonders of the jewel but to poke around where the luster was beginning to wear away. This wasn’t an exercise in pessimism or despair. Quite the opposite. I wanted to see how much improvement there could be with just a little bit of money from the State of Texas.

 For the first time in more than twenty years, the Legislature does not face the usual budget crunch. Instead it finds itself confronting the happy (or so you’d think) fact of a budget surplus of $5.6 billion. But that turns out to be less of a surplus than one would think. Three billion dollars is already destined for schools, because of increases in enrollment, and for staffing new prisons. The governor is determined to return the remaining $2.6 billion of the surplus to the people by tax cuts. At the same time, the big money magnets in the budget—education, social services, highways—will be vying for some or all of that $2.6 billion. The thought of all that money affected me as well. I began to ask myself what would be the wisest way to spend just a small portion of the surplus. I set guidelines. I wanted to spend the money in a way that would benefit everyone in Texas more or less equally, and I wanted to spend it in a way that would be enduring. I wanted the money to make things right; that is, I wanted to transform something that is not quite up to par into something fine. And I wanted to find the place where I could spend the least amount of money that would have the greatest effect. My search led me quickly to the Parks and Wildlife Department. I had come to Bastrop to see if I was right.

Texas has a special obligation toward Bastrop State Park because in 1997 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. This park is one of the few in the country that was fully built and developed by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-thirties. In fact, the CCC built all or part of 32 parks in Texas, a little less than a quarter of the parks in the state today. Despite this glorious era of building, state parks remained something of a political stepchild until 1963, when Governor John Connally, who recognized what a good park system would mean to the state, got parks merged with the better-funded and more politically potent agency that regulated hunting and fishing to form the Parks and Wildlife Department. The budget for maintenance and development of new parks tripled.

The next great advocate for parks, and the only one Texas has had since Connally, was a state senator named Don Kennard. In 1971 he pushed through a 2-cent tax per pack of cigarettes with 1 cent dedicated to state parks and 1 cent dedicated to local parks. That tax plus federal grants and $75 million from bonds for acquiring land that Texas voters had passed a few years earlier allowed the state to double its park lands by 1980.

In 1983 the revenue from the dedicated cigarette tax peaked at $18.4 million. The Legislature also appropriated at least $16 million from undedicated general revenue each year. The remainder of the system’s revenue came from user fees, gifts, and other sources. But each year after 1983, Texans smoked less. Since fewer packs of cigarettes were sold, the dedicated tax revenue decreased. At the same time, the public expectation of the role of parks changed. For generations parks were places for people to relax and enjoy themselves. Now parks were supposed to be environmental havens as well, places where the natural world was preserved, even enshrined. Suddenly, parks had a new mission in addition to their old one of providing recreation, and the new mission not only required additional expenses but also was sometimes difficult to reconcile with recreation. Bastrop State Park is home to the Houston toad, an endangered species, and needs to make allowance for the toad’s needs and habitat. Furthermore, there was a philosophical problem with the cigarette tax. There was no connection between smokers and the parks that benefited from the cigarette tax, as there is between the drivers who pay a tax on gasoline and the highways that benefit from the gasoline tax.

In 1993 Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock called Andy Sansom to his office. Andy had been the executive director of Parks and Wildlife for three years by then. Bullock, who was uncomfortable with dedicated funds and saw no connection between parks and cigarettes, said that from then on there would be no more cigarette money going to parks. Not one penny. And there would be no more undedicated revenue from the general fund. Sansom could see his budget imploding. “But what alternative do I have?” he asked.

Bullock calmly said, “Suicide.”

Fortunately for Andy, Bullock was not against parks and had an alternative in mind after all. Parks and Wildlife would receive a portion of the sales tax that came from sporting goods. This portion was capped, however, so that parks could receive no more money than they would have received from the cigarette tax in any given year. The rest of the money would have to be made up from user fees, cuts in operating expenses, and other sources such as endowments, legacies, or gifts. These fiscal necessities have resulted in a leaner, more efficient department that has attracted some generous support from private citizens. But the gap has not been closed. In 1983 Parks and Wildlife had $63 million to operate 116 sites; in 1998 it had $51 million to operate 141 sites. The sporting-goods tax brings in $15 million a year, $3 million less than the cigarette tax did at its peak. And, although the sporting-goods-tax revenues are increasing, the cap means that Parks and Wildlife’s share is proportionately less each year. If it received the same proportion of the sporting-goods tax today that it did in 1993, the first year in the new system, its revenues would be $9 million higher. That makes a $12 million negative impact on the budget since 1983. And where do we see the effects of that missing $12 million?

At Bastrop you can see it in cabin 5. The roof, which slants down to eye level on the left side, is rotting away and so are the wooden beams right beneath it. In cabin 1 the veneer on the door is peeling. The bathhouse adjoining the swimming pool has a row of wooden columns that are rotting near the bottom. A separation between the pool lining and the tank is causing persistent leaks into the pool’s control room, where the chemical controls are antiquated and need constant monitoring. Over time trees have grown up around the electric lines. During a storm, the trees sway, knock down the lines, and the camp loses power. The wastewater system consists of the original clay pipe from the thirties. It often backs up, and it leaks badly enough that in the lowest part of the park, sewage from the pipes seeps up to the surface, causing both a nuisance and a health hazard. A beautiful paved road between the Bastrop park and Buescher State Park, eleven miles away, can’t be kept properly cleared of overhanging branches. And there is no perimeter fence that can protect the site from trespassing livestock, gypsy loggers, and the like. There is not enough money in the budget to fix these problems.

Each park has a similar list. There are minor problems, like the rotting wood, that will become major problems if not repaired. And there are disasters waiting to happen, like the aging wastewater system in Bastrop. The park stays open despite them, keeping up as good an appearance as possible, but the underlying flaws will in time gain the upper hand, and our parks, instead of being pretty and nicely tended, will become shoddy.

That is why the park system needs that $12 million. Today Texas ranks last among the fifty states in the percentage of state budget spent on parks and forty-fifth in operating dollars per acre of parks. (State senator Buster Brown has recently introduced legislation that would remove the cap on the sporting-goods tax.) In the meantime the department has learned to do more with less, and as Andy Sansom told me, “Shame on us if we were to get more money and go back to the old ways.” That isn’t going to happen. Sansom and his associates at the department have already prepared a budget for the extra $12 million should they get it. It goes for repairs, equipment, and supplies, hard goods that are sorely needed. $12 million is .0124 percent of the total state budget. It is .46 percent of the $2.6 billion surplus the Legislature will be fighting over. In other words, as state budget matters go, it’s very little money. Spending it on parks would benefit everyone in Texas since everyone is invited to enjoy the parks. Currently the parks are drawing between 20 million and 25 million visits a year. Money spent on parks is enduring because they will be the property of the state forever. The money would set our parks right, prevent them from showing wear around the edges, and prevent future disasters invited by lack of maintenance. This is the smallest amount of money that can have the biggest effect anywhere in the budget. Shouldn’t we give our parks the extra $12 million they need?