Two “Mississippi Outdoor Stewardship Trust Funds” presented, both with different funding models.
Mississippi’s state parks and outdoor areas could get a facelift with several bills coming from the Legislature this year. The state’s outdoor recreation is an estimated $8 billion industry. This includes over $600 million in local and state revenue and nearly 80,000 jobs.
Two bills were dropped in the Senate that would restructure who has authority over state parks and for how long.
State Senator Neil Whaley presented the creation of a position of Executive Director for state parks with term limits, in SB 2503, while SB 2504 would cap the tenure of the Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) as well as create a division of parks and recreation. Therefore, parks and recreation would stand alone under MDWFP. Technically, it is the creation of a department within a department.
Both bills passed in the Senate on Wednesday.
But the changes don’t stop there.
Who has authority over parks is not the only thing to change in the Senate. Funding for projects to improve state lands for recreational use could also see revision.
The care of Mississippi’s state parks has come into question over the last several years. Solutions have been offered to improve the outdoor areas, including a bill originally proposed in the House in 2021, the Mississippi Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund, but failed to make it through the Senate for final passage. Similar language was proposed again this year by State Rep. Trey Lamar in HB 606.
In the House, legislation there says the trust fund would be filled with monies from sales tax diversions on the sale of sporting goods. The maximum amount in last year’s proposal was $20 million which would be accrued over a three-year period. The 2021 bill was killed in the Senate, while the 2022 bill has moved from the House with strong support.
This year’s legislation from the Senate which has the same title, SB 2495, would establish a trust fund through the Mississippi State Treasury and provide that any money in that fund be used through grants by the Department of Finance and Administration for cities and counties for specific purposes related to the conservation or promotion of wildlife, natural areas or outdoor activities in the state.
The major difference in the House bill this year and last year, and with the Senate’s bill, is how money will make it into the fund.
The Senate bill outlines that the Legislature will appropriate the dollars for the fund. A city or county who has applied for assistance can receive up to $750,000 for a project. Anything appropriated over that amount can only come on a reimbursement basis.
Money in the fund can go toward improvement of state parks, city and county trails, restoration or enhancement projects to improve access to public water or lands, and the protection of clean water, wildlife, hunting, fishing, military installation buffering or natural resource-based recreation.
The bill establishes a Board of Trustees made up of the Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Tourism and three members appointed by the Governor and two by the Lieutenant Governor. Non-voting members of the board include the Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and the Director of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
Any city or county who would like to receive portions of these monies must submit an application to the board and include the purpose for the assistance requested, the type and amount of assistance requested, and any other information the board may require.
Two bills that did not make it past the floor deadline day include Senate bills 2518 and 2515, the newly created parks and recreation department would be transferred from the jurisdiction of the MWFP Department and Commission to the Mississippi Development Authority Tourism Division.