This year, lawmakers are taking on one area of the state that is often neglected, Mississippi’s state parks.
Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann has made the improvement of the state’s parks and wildlife areas a priority of his for the 2021 Legislative session. He estimated that restoring these areas will be a roughly $147 million investment.
“That’s a staggering cost which means we’ve probably been ignoring them for some period of time to get them like that,” said Hosemann. He said this is an issue of importance in ensuring that those areas are exceptional for future enjoyment by Mississippi families.
Mississippi has 24 state parks with one natural area. Those parks span from North to South Mississippi and some are in better conditions than others. They are maintained by the Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks.
The Senate’s strategy could mean parks are privatized. The first step in this year’s bill will create a committee responsible for looking at the current state parks and wildlife areas while conducting a study on how they are managed, asking if a restructuring of ownership is necessary.
SB 2486, authored by Senator Neil Whaley (R), passed out of its assigned committees and was passed on the Senate floor last week by a vote of 32 to 11, practically down party lines.
The Mississippi State Parks Study Committee would be established to study the current practices of maintaining state parks, the cost of renovations and whether or not local governments are able to continue with operations. The report on these findings would be due at the beginning of the 2022 Legislative session.
The House, however, is more concerned with funding the programs currently responsible for maintaining parks. That chamber passed three bills pertaining to that particular issue as well.
HB 1231 would create a special fund in the State Treasury entitled “Mississippi Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund.”
“The bill creates the Mississippi Outdoor Stewardship Fund. It is funded by diversions from taxes collected on sporting goods here in Mississippi. So there are no new monies or no new taxes or fees being generated to fund the program. The maximum the fund can have in it is $20M, which would be accrued over a three year period of the stated diversions,” said Rep. Scott Bounds (R), author of the bill.
The money held there could be used by the Department of Finance and Administration to assist cities and counties in the upkeep and management of wildlife, nature and outdoor activities. These funds could also go to non-profit entities that might maintain these areas.
The governing board would be composed of three members appointed by the Governor and four by the Lt. Governor, with two of the Lt. Governor’s appointments being with the advise of the Speaker of the House.
“The Board composition should represent all of Mississippi and bring time, talent and love of the outdoors and Conservation to the table,” said Rep. Bounds.
HB 1154 was also passed creating the “Mississippi Outdoors and Natural Resources Fund.” This particular fund will be administered by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, and create grants that would be available to private entities with the purpose of supporting or enhancing state parks, trails, facilities, private parks and trails, outdoor recreation areas and wildlife and natural resource programs.
The fund will receive money through donations, gifts and grants.
“No state dollars would go in it, but it would allow a public and private partnership to be able to improve our parks,” said Representative Chris Brown (R). “Look at it as a free market approach.”
Brown said it is important for people who live near and frequent state parks to be able to have input in how they are utilized. This fund would allow for them to do that with privatized donations.
He said that the bill goes one step further. It would allow local schools the opportunity to apply for grants, allowing something to the extent of a conservation area.
“People that enjoy the parks should be able to invest back into the parks,” said Rep. Brown.
Lastly, the House wants to make sure Mississippians know about the parks and recreation areas that the state has in operation. HB 148, authored by Rep. Becky Currie (R), would ensure that no less than three percent of advertising and marketing by the Mississippi Development Authority will be to promote Mississippi state parks.
All of these bills passed the House chamber prior to Thursday’s deadline day.