Lawmakers considering bill to boost state parks

Parks would keep interest from earnings instead of it going to general revenue

Missouri environmental officials want to keep the interest earned from one of their bank accounts to help boost funding for state parks facing tight budgets.

The parks division gets about three-fourths of its money from an earmarked state sales tax. Other funds such as from souvenir sales and fees for camping and concessions are deposited into the State Park Earnings Fund.

Legislation filed in the House and considered this past week by a tourism committee would allow the interest paid for that fund to be retained by the parks instead of being turned over to the state’s general account.

Currently, the interest earned from the parks fund is deposited in Missouri’s general bank account and can be used for other state programs and expenses.

Missouri’s park system — like those in numerous states — has faced budget difficulties in recent years.

In 2009, more than 100 positions were eliminated from the Division of State Parks and Historic Sites because of declining sales tax revenue. The agency also estimates a backlog for capital improvement projects that tops $200 million.

Missouri park officials said the additional money from keeping their interest payments could help with daily operations and maintenance.

“Every dollar helps,” Missouri Parks Director Bill Bryan said.

Lawmakers also hope the additional money for parks could expand tourism.

“Investing in our state parks increases tourism, increases spending, increases the number of people coming to our state park,” said sponsoring Rep. Don Ruzicka, R-Mount Vernon.

The park fund this year has had a balance of more than $30 million because it includes money from a settlement, though some of that money is dedicated for specific projects. Before then, it averaged a balance of $4.5 million for nearly a decade.

Even with relatively low interest rates, the higher balance means more interest. Legislative staff estimate that state parks could pick up $111,196 in the 2012 budget that starts in July. That would taper off to $82,868 in 2013 and $70,400 in 2014.

Just over half of Missouri’s dedicated funds are allowed to keep their interest while the rest revert to the state’s general revenue, according to the state treasurer’s office. Through the first five months of the current budget year, Missouri’s general revenue picked up $2.6 million in interest from funds. Last year, $6.5 million in interest was transferred from dedicated funds to general revenue.

Besides increasing revenue, park officials contend it is fairer for parks to keep the interest the fund earns.

Citing the example of a new park cabin, Bryan said money from the parks sales tax is used to build the structure that then brings in additional revenue that would be deposited into the earnings fund. He said the interest from that additional revenue should be used to help the parks.

The Missouri Parks Association, a private group that advocates for state parks, said the facilities need any financial boost they can get.

However, allowing state parks to get more money would translate into less for the state’s general revenue that is used to balance Missouri’s budget. Gov. Jay Nixon and lawmakers estimate Missouri faces a budget deficit of several hundred million dollars for next year.

Nixon’s budget director, Linda Luebbering, said the interest from the parks fund could be replaced.

“It is a small amount of money, and I think most people would assume that if you have a dedicated source of revenue like that, the interest would stick with the fund,” she said.

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