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The Mississippi Legislature ultimately scrapped most proposals intended to help boost state parks, including Trace State Park, seen in this file photo from 2020. The state’s Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks reports that $147 million in repairs are needed at state parks, but has not fully accounted for where this number came from.

Lawmakers wanted to fix state parks, but couldn’t agree on a strategy

{child_byline}BY LUKE RAMSETH

Daily Journal Capitol correspondent{/child_byline}

JACKSON • Mississippi lawmakers set out this year to fix the state’s rundown parks system and ensure future funding for conservation projects, but they came up mostly empty handed as the legislative session closed last week.

Lawmakers disagreed on whether to privatize some of the state’s 25 parks, or find a public funding source. They didn’t pass a bill for more advertising, even as surrounding states turn their parks into big tourism draws. And they couldn’t hammer out a deal on establishing a $20 million conservation trust fund that could bring in extra federal money.

“We’re nowhere,” said Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, who serves on the House parks committee and leads its tourism committee. “I think we once again have done what we’ve done every year – and we’ve ended up doing nothing. As tourism chair, I can tell you that it’s detrimental to us, not to fix our state parks.”

Legislators did reverse budget cuts made last year to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. They also carved out funds for a few specific projects, and pledged to keep pushing toward a larger parks overhaul next year.

But fundamental questions remain unanswered: Is privatizing some state parks a realistic option? Lawmakers killed a privatization study committee that would’ve met this summer. And exactly how much money does the park system need? MDWFP claims it has a $147 million maintenance backlog, but the agency could not provide data to the Daily Journal on what went into that estimate. Lawmakers said they also have never seen a full accounting of the maintenance figure.

Rep. Bill Kinkade, a Byhalia Republican who leads the Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Committee, acknowledged state leaders have let the parks system deteriorate in recent years. Parks funding over the past two decades was slashed nearly 60% as the Legislature focused limited dollars elsewhere. But Kinkade said priorities are changing.

“There’s a renewed focus on parks,” he said. “We’ve talked about privatization, we’ve talked about a public-private partnership. All of that is still on the table.”

How big is the problem?

Jennifer Head, MDWFP’s budget administrator, said the $147 million tally accounts for a range of needs, including electrical, water and sewer fixes to campgrounds, as well as repairs to pools, trails, bathhouses and roads.

But the agency did not provide documentation to back up its estimate in response to a Daily Journal records request. It instead offered a document showing $14 million in repairs that Head said is the agency’s “current priority list.”

That list includes several pricey upgrades at Northeast Mississippi’s parks. J.P. Coleman needs about $1.6 million in funding, including two cabin replacements, utility, sewer and water upgrades, and trail and bridge repairs. Tishomingo needs $250,000, including pool and cabin renovations, while Tombigbee has $200,000 worth of cabin repairs, according to the document.

Kinkade said the agency recently gave him data on its full maintenance backlog, but that document totaled just over $100 million in repairs – not $147 million. He declined to provide it to the Daily Journal.

Sen. Daniel Sparks, a Republican from Belmont who serves on the Senate’s parks committee, said this week the agency has yet to show him “any detail or specificity” on its $147 million estimate.

“This has to be tallied from (something), and that’s all we’re asking – show me the math,” Sparks told the Daily Journal.

PEER, the Legislature’s watchdog committee, is set to finish a report next month on the the state’s parks system, which could give lawmakers and other officials more details on the system’s troubles, and insight on what steps they should take next.

Did parks get more funding this year?

MDWFP received about a 5% uptick in funding for the fiscal year starting in July, including money to give small raises for the agency’s more than 600 employees.

Lawmakers also approved $3.5 million in funding for cabin renovations at parks and $1.9 million for upgrades to Buccaneer State Park on the Coast, which Kinkade said is the park system’s biggest “moneymaker.” They authorized borrowing for projects at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park in Jackson, including to upgrade the entrance to the Mississippi Children’s Museum and the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.

At the last minute, lawmakers also earmarked $3.1 million to buy more land – though budget legislation did not specify where or how much, other than it would be used for “hunting, fishing and outdoor activities.”

Kinkade said the money is to buy 820 acres in the Delta for a wildlife management area. He said there was a controversy over whether it was responsible to buy more land when the state is struggling to fund its existing parks, but Senate leaders including Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann wanted it, and the money came from the Senate’s capital expense fund. “It’s not the way I would’ve spent that $3.1 million,” Kinkade said.

Kinkade and Sparks noted they are hoping the state can also eventually tap some of its $1.8 billion in American Rescue Plan funds for state park infrastructure upgrades, such as roads and sewers.

Should Mississippi privatize some parks?

Senate leaders including Hosemann favored privatizing a few parks, and offloading some parks to municipalities, or at least studying the idea. House members mostly disagreed, offering ways the state could divert more funding to the system.

Kinkade said he doesn’t favor “wholesale privatization,” but added there may be a way to privatize one or two parks, or test it out with a “pilot program.” He said he expects lawmakers will continue to discuss privatization this summer.

But many lawmakers and advocates remain staunchly opposed to the idea.

Louie Miller, director of the Sierra Club of Mississippi, noted parks are a sound taxpayer investment. On average in the U.S., he said, state parks generate around $6 to $8 in economic activity for every $1 spent.

“Handing the keys to some private developer is not the path we need to go down,” Miller said. “What we need is an agency that has some interest in managing these parks, which we currently don’t.”

What happened to the proposed conservation trust fund?

House leaders proposed creating the Mississippi Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund – a $20 million pot of money that could be used for a wide range of conservation and outdoor projects, including parks.

They said other states including Georgia had used similar conservation funds to secure tens of millions of dollars in federal grant money, which in some cases requires states to provide matching money.

The Senate gutted the bill, however, and it eventually died. Senators said they were concerned about provisions that allowed the funds to be used on private land. And they didn’t like that it would automatically divert sales taxes from sporting goods stores, when those tax dollars might need to be spent on education or other areas some years.

Kinkade argued a steady funding source is essential, otherwise the Legislature might not appropriate any money for the fund some years. And he said because Mississippi has very little public land overall, such a fund needs flexibility to use its money for projects that overlap both public and private property.

He said lawmakers should be able to reach a compromise on the fund next year, noting the overwhelming support the idea received from groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited.

Miller, with the Sierra Club, said he’s not convinced such a fund is a good idea, especially if it allows spending on private property, and has few limits on where the money can be diverted. Public money, he said, should be used for public lands.

“That’s the prudent way to have moved on this,” Miller said, “instead of having the potential to end up as a fund that can be used to fix up some rich plantation owner in the Delta’s duck hole.”

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LUKE RAMSETH is a Jackson-based reporter covering the 2021 session of the Mississippi Legislature for the Daily Journal. Email him at lramseth@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @lramseth.

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LUKE RAMSETH is a Jackson-based reporter covering the 2021 session of the Mississippi Legislature for the Daily Journal. Email him at lramseth@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @lramseth.

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