I tuned in to the Texas House proceedings Sunday night just after midnight (hence Monday morning, officially) in anticipation of seeing action on the parks funding bill, HB 12, in the final hours of this legislative session. Instead, I saw quite a dramatic display, as the latest battle in the attempt to dislodge Tom Craddick from the Speaker position was launched.
A fellow GOP representative from El Paso, Pat Haggerty, in the middle of a brief speech, started to take a roll call on a motion to declare the speaker position empty -- the exact motion that Craddick had spent the last two days furiously trying to suppress, ever since the original Friday night uproar that prompted the resignations of two parliamentarians and their replacement by loyal Craddick-ite former legislators, Republican Terry Keel and Democrat Ron Wilson. The new parliamentarians interpreted every rule to Craddick's benefit in order to run out the clock on the attempt to oust him. Immediately prior to starting his roll call, Rep. Haggerty asked the chamber about Keel and Wilson: "Where did they go to parliamentarian school that somehow makes them better than God?"
The Craddick forces eventually halted Haggerty's impromptu roll call and Haggerty then stormed out of the chamber, with over 50 other representatives (out of 150; most of those walking out were Democrats no doubt) joining him, breaking the quorum and forcing the House to adjourn for the night. All this with only a single day left in the session, and numerous bills still waiting for final approval.
Not being very familiar with how the House operates, I was worried that this action would doom a major part of the increased state parks funding, which was contingent on passage of HB 12. That could be acceptable if it helped to depose Craddick, but he was still as entrenched as ever despite the walkout.
Fortunately, that worry seems to have been misguided. The House returned to session today for the final day and unanimously passed HB 12 (as I found out first via Charles Kuffner), thus ensuring that Texas' state and local parks systems will be well funded for the next two years. Unfortunately, based on what I read, modifications made to the bill in the state Senate suggest that we will probably have to go through this all over again in 2009. Fortunately, parks obviously have extraordinarily wide support so odds of success are good. One area to target: more money for acquiring new parks.
From the Express-News online, hot off the wire late Monday night (emphasis added):
Texas lawmakers gave final approval Monday to increasing spending for state and local parks but stopped short of using all of the sporting goods tax revenue supporters said is necessary for the long-term vitality of parks.
"This is mixed. Short term, we did great, but long term is very much a question," said House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Chairman Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, a longtime champion of state and local parks.
A special parks advisory committee last year recommended a 10-year plan and urged lawmakers to allocate all of the sporting goods tax revenue for state and local parks.
The bill would increase funding for state and local parks by $156 million, and it includes a $44 million bond issue that requires voter approval in the November election.
"It's a good, solid package, and it's a good first step," said George Bristol, vice chairman of the parks advisory committee. "Basically, we got almost everything we wanted for the first two years. Obviously, it will take longer than two years to fix up the parks."
Senate leaders insisted on a study of the sporting goods tax to determine from which items the sales tax should flow to parks. For example, Hilderbran asked if billiards equipment tax revenue should continue to be eligible for parks funding. The tax revenue from canoe sales currently does not go for parks, he said.
Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who pushed the parks bill through the Senate, said the $156 million increase for state and local parks over the next two years is "very generous."
"It's going to make it very difficult to go back. This is a great step in the right direction," Estes said.
But he added that state leaders must spend more on park acquisition, considering Texas' rapidly expanding population.
The parks committee recommended that Texas spend $15 million a year to develop new parks. The budget calls for less than half of that.
Investing in new parks, Estes said, "is something that we need to work on in the future."
Meanwhile, though, today is a day to celebrate. It's been a truism ever since I arrived in Texas in 1998 that our parks, while great places, just don't get much money. This looks like it's about to change, at least for the next couple years.