Missouri’s state park system, which attracts more than 20 million visitors a year, has repeatedly been recognized as one of the four best in the nation owing to the quality of the natural and cultural resources it protects, excellence of management, and strong citizen support. But while a state ranked 18th in population among the states is 10th or higher in park visitors, it is only middling—around 25th—in both acreage and funding, lower than might be expected.
Missouri’s 1/10th of 1 percent Parks, Soil and Water Sales Tax (of which parks gets half), a signal achievement of the Missouri Parks Association, which was founded in 1982 to address a severe funding crisis, was approved by a vote of the people in 1984 and has since been renewed five times by citizen vote, most recently in 2016 by an astounding 80 percent. It is the envy of many other state park systems for the relatively stable, dependable funding it provides.
Then why do Missouri parks have a funding problem? The answer is that the sales tax is being asked to do more than was ever intended. Most park systems, Missouri’s included, have historically funded capital improvements, including new land, facilities, and infrastructure rehabilitation, from federal programs or special state infusions, such as bond issues or dedicated taxes. When the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund was zeroed out in 1981, Missouri’s answer was the Parks and Soils sales tax. But then, during a state financial crisis in 1990, the legislature stripped the park system’s state general revenue, which historically had provided staff salaries and benefits and basic operating costs, and it was never restored.
Since then the park system has been dependent for virtually all purposes on the sales tax for about 75 percent of its budget, with the remainder coming largely from concessions and fees for visitor services, which are priced at cost. The result has been a growing backlog of vitally needed infrastructure rehabilitation, currently estimated at about $200 million, not including other desirable capital improvements.
The devastating economic downturn of 2008-2011 led to the elimination of 20 percent of full-time staff positions, the vast majority of which have never been refilled and are no longer even authorized. That placed considerable burden on the remaining staff, but when the economy began to improve it allowed for some flexibility in funding some of the most critically needed maintenance and repairs, though hardly denting the backlog.
When a bill to authorize a State Building Bond Fund was introduced in the 2009 session of the legislature, the Missouri Parks Association succeeded in getting it amended to include not less than $40 million for infrastructure rehabilitation in state parks. MPA argued that the park system included more than 2,000 structures, 700 of them historic, and more than 150 public water and wastewater systems—56 percent of all the buildings and more than two-thirds of all the water systems the state is directly responsible for maintaining. The system also has to maintain 300 miles of park roads, more than 1,000 miles of trails plus the 240-mile Katy Trail and 47 miles of the Rock Island, as well as 3,700 campsites and numerous interpretive exhibits. After the bonding bill passed the House but was filibustered to death in the Senate, it was reintroduced in each of the next four sessions, always providing for at least $40 million for state parks.
Finally in 2014, a different bonding bill introduced by Sen. Mike Parson that authorized $600 million in bonds finally passed. But Parson’s companion list of projects, including $50 million for state parks, was not taken up by the House. That list passed in 2015 as part of a major state budget bill, but the two lines providing $50 million for parks had been surreptitiously deleted from a House substitute at the last minute with no public discussion. It is likely that the deed was done through a secret deal by a few representatives angry at Gov. Nixon for his efforts to develop the new Echo Bluff State Park and acquire additional park land through federal legal settlement funds without consulting them. It is also likely that most lawmakers voting to approve the budget did not even know that the park funds had been stripped. Hard against the deadline for budget approval, Sen. Parson was able to get only $10 million restored.
Infrastructure rehabilitation in state parks and other state agency facilities is currently a priority of the governor, the general assembly, and state park officials as well as the Missouri Parks Association, but so far there have been few extra funds in sight for this purpose. MPA remains alert to funding possibilities for state parks, and there are many other conservation and park-related organizations that would like to help secure such funds. Any infusion of infrastructure funds would go overwhelmingly to small construction firms in rural areas of the state and boost the economy in places that need it most. The state has a responsibility to maintain its infrastructure from which it cannot walk away.
Moreover, state parks and infrastructure rehabilitation are an excellent public investment. A 2012 study of the economic impact of our Missouri parks revealed that the system, which operates on a budget of about $60 million annually with a staff of fewer than 600, contributes more than $1 billion in sales, $300 million in payroll-related income, 14,535 jobs, and $123 million in taxes to Missouri's economy. For every dollar invested in state parks, the study found, $26 was returned to the state’s economy, a stunning return on investment.