JACKSON • Lawmakers halted legislation to partially privatize and overhaul Mississippi’s state parks system this year, but one Northeast Mississippi lawmaker warned his colleagues and the public on Friday that such a drastic step is likely still coming.
“Anyone who thinks this isn’t an attempt to privatize the state parks is naive,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.
Senators on Friday passed legislation to create a study committee to research how best to improve Mississippi’s parks system, which has been in disrepair for years thanks to chronic underfunding.
Under Senate Bill 2486, five senators and five representatives would gather information and research various problems with the parks system before offering policy recommendations before the 2022 session.
But Bryan argued many lawmakers already have their minds made up: They want to privatize some state parks and give others away to local governments in order to save the state money.
The original version of SB 2486 would have done just that, he pointed out, before concerns from the public and local officials pushed lawmakers to pause the legislation and possibly study the issue further.
“All this (study committee) is about is, mechanically, how do we turn the state parks over to some private industry?” Bryan said. “It’s heartbreaking!”
Sen. Neil Whaley and other senators argued that isn’t true. Whaley, a Republican from Potts Camp who authored the parks legislation, said the study committee makes sense because lawmakers simply need more answers about the current status of the state’s parks.
He said the committee would take an exploratory approach and would not limit itself to studying privatization options. The original bill proposed privatizing operations of at least 10 parks, broken up by geographic region.
“We in no way want to turn these into private resorts,” he assured his colleagues.
Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont, agreed the issue needs far more research before lawmakers take action. He pointed out that state parks officials say they have a $147 million maintenance backlog, but Sparks said lawmakers have not been provided details of what maintenance is needed.
“When we ask the (state parks) department, ‘What do you need?’ And they say, ‘Just a big old check, and leave us alone,’ that’s not appropriate,” Sparks said.
Beyond collecting more details from state parks officials, Sparks noted, the study committee could also visit parks in neighboring states and see how they have handled improvements, or how privatization has worked elsewhere.
Part of the original legislation called for conveying six state parks to local counties and cities. Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said such an arrangement has worked out well for Shepard State Park, which is already managed by the city of Gautier.
But Bryan and other lawmakers argued state parks should be funded and operated by the state. They said it was the Legislature’s fault that the parks system had fallen into disrepair, and it should be the Legislature’s responsibility to fix them by funding them adequately, rather than hand them over to private operators or local governments.
“The parks belong to the people of Mississippi,” Bryan said. “Tishomingo State Park and J.P. Coleman State Park do not belong to Tishomingo County, any more than the beach on the Gulf Coast belongs to the three counties down there. It’s public lands, it’s public property, it belongs to all of us.”
Bryan urged Mississippians to watch the parks issue “like a hawk.”
“People who care about keeping the parks available for public use, either free of charge or at low rates, need to watch this proposition as it goes through,” he said.
Eleven senators voted against creating the parks study committee on Friday, including North Mississippi’s Bryan and Angela Turner-Ford, D-West Point. The proposal now goes to the House for consideration.
The House has been considering its own state parks legislation. One bill that would have diverted state lottery money to help pay for park repairs died in committee. But a second bill that would create a $20 million trust fund to help pay for various conservation projects, including in state parks, remains under consideration.
“This will be the biggest thing the state of Mississippi has done for conservation in recent memory, maybe in our history,” Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, said of the conservation fund proposal, which has seen success in other states.