JACKSON • Lawmakers have paused legislation to privatize some Mississippi state parks and give others away to local governments, saying they need to conduct more research.
The Senate Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Committee instead passed a bill Monday to create a legislative study committee – five members appointed by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, five by House Speaker Philip Gunn – that would research how best to fix Mississippi’s beleaguered parks system. The legislation now heads to the full Senate for consideration.
“We just don’t have the information, and I think the study committee is the right direction to go,” Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont, said Monday. “I think we need to be gathering the information. There are a lot of people who care about our state parks, and want them to be in better shape.”
Sen. Neil Whaley, R-Potts Camp, leader of the parks committee, said the proposal to privatize some parks and rework how others are managed “has garnered a lot of attention, and rightfully so.” Given the complexity of the proposal, he said it makes sense for lawmakers to take a step back and continue researching the issue.
The original Senate proposal called for leasing at least 10 parks to private operators, handing six more over to county or city governments, and changing how other parks are classified. It would have left just four parks unaltered and under state management.
The replacement legislation that passed out of committee Monday would task a group of lawmakers to gather answers to a series of parks questions, including the “feasibility and desirability” of leasing some parks out and whether some local governments would even be interested in taking over management of the parks.
The group of 10 lawmakers will study the issue and report their findings back for the 2022 session, when a parks overhaul proposal could once again be considered.
The state’s 25 parks have faced shrinking budgets and staff numbers for years, and parks officials recently said they have a maintenance backlog worth $147 million. About 600 structures need work.
Hosemann said before the legislative session one of his top priorities was improving the parks system so that it could compete with surrounding states and draw in more tourists. Partial privatization, and changing management of some parks, was seen as one avenue, but the proposal also garnered pushback from many lawmakers.
In comments to the Lee County Board of Supervisors on Monday, State Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, rejected the bill in its original form, which if passed would place Tombigbee State Park in Tupelo under the board’s control.
“Sen. Whaley planned on doing something with Tombigbee State Park,” McMahan told supervisors. “He did that on his own accord. He and I did not talk about that park, and I wouldn’t vote to thrust that park on you. I know that would be an expense.”
Lee County officials previously said that they were not even aware that Whaley had filed a bill that would place the park under their authority until informed by the Daily Journal. They said placing Tombigbee State Park under local control would place a financial burden on the county.
McMahan said after the meeting that while he appreciated Whaley’s work in trying to find a solution to the parks which have a massive backlog for maintenance projects, he disagreed with the overall plan.
In the House, members have also drawn up proposals to help the parks system – but without privatization or turning over properties to local governments.
House Bill 152 would divert about $3.5 million in state lottery proceeds annually – funds that are currently funneled to infrastructure and education needs – to help out with park maintenance. The legislation cleared a committee last week.
“I’m not crazy about opening code sections on lottery,” said Rep. Bill Kinkade, R-Byhalia, who leads the House parks committee. “We’ve got to keep that to a minimum. But I think this is very applicable to the need. This is new money, and as we start coming in higher than expected on our lottery proceeds, this is a timely funding mechanism.”
A separate House proposal would create the Mississippi Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund. The fund, capped at $20 million, would raise money from sales taxes on sporting goods to pay for projects in state parks and other natural areas around the state. That legislation also passed an initial committee test last week.
Other states have used a similar model to pay for conservation causes, Kinkade said of the trust fund idea.
Daily Journal government reporter Taylor Vance contributed to this story.