After we convinced the Texas Legislature to appropriate $1 billion to create new state parks, the next step was winning approval on the ballot. Because the legislation establishing the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund proposed adding the program to the Texas constitution, Texas voters had to approve it before it could become law.
This summer, Joseph Fitzsimons, former Chairman of Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, re-established the Texas Coalition for State Parks PAC (which was initially created to pass Prop 5, which guarantees that sales taxes on sporting goods go to fund our state parks). With financial contributions from The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, REI and others, he hired crack communications expert Jenifer Sarver to coordinate the PAC’s efforts. Environment Texas worked hand-in-hand with Sarver and the PAC to pass what became Proposition 14 in November.
Potential challenges at the ballot
Polling showed that 74% of Texans support the ballot measure, but we had a few reasons to be concerned.
- Low turnout. As the election mostly featured just constitutional amendments and local bond propositions (and not marquis races for President, Governor, Congress, etc), we expected turnout to be low – perhaps just around 10-12% of voters (about two million people). Anything can happen with low turnout.
- Long ballot/spending fatigue – There were 14 constitutional amendments on the ballot, including $1.5 billion for broadband internet, $1 billion for water, and $10 billion for gas plants. As Prop 14 was the very last of them all, there was a risk voters would get weary of so much spending and decide parks, while nice, weren’t as important as these other things.
- Fairfield Lake/30×30 backlash – The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is attempting to use eminent domain to save Fairfield Lake State Park from being converted into a luxury development, a move which faced some criticism. At the same time, some conservatives have criticized the Biden Administration’s America the Beautiful initiative (which seeks to protect 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030 – aka 30 x 30). There was a potential that our opponents would link the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund to these efforts and urge voters to reject the measure as a “government land grab”.
- Opposition from the right and the left – Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and the True Texas Project came out against Prop 14, arguing that “this amendment is just an excuse to spend more money without having it show up in the budget.” And from the left, we faced a bizarre argument that “state parks are a colonial based idea that divides nature from humans.”
So we weren’t taking victory for granted. Environment Texas hired Andrea Laureano, a recent UT Austin graduate, to help lead our voter outreach efforts. Working with Jenifer Sarver, Andrea helped build the coalition to over 90 organizations endorsing Prop 14, including REI, L.L. Bean, and the Access Fund.
Andrea also criss-crossed the state holding news conferences, with Sarver’s team providing critical support in turning out the media and ensuring widespread coverage (not easy to do when competing against 13 other ballot measures and a lively mayoral race in Houston). Andrea and our volunteers also tabled at events, spoke to community groups, organized visibility events, and engaged Texans on social media.
Celebrities care about nature and were willing to jump into the fray
We partnered with Grammy winning singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves and nature documentary filmmaker Ben Masters to produce a video making the case for Prop 14. Thanks to earned media efforts and a paid media campaign by the Texas Coalition for State Parks, the video was viewed millions of times. We also wrote op-eds including for the San Antonio Express News and the Austin American-Statesman.
In the end, people didn’t need much convincing
When we worked to place this on the ballot, our starting point was that people of all political stripes love state parks and care deeply about the natural world. Of course, we still campaigned to pass Prop 14, but our fingers were crossed that Texans would stay true to their love of the great outdoors. It worked.
On Nov. 7, 76% of Texans and majorities in every one of Texas’ 254 counties voted for Prop 14 – the largest investment in nature in Texas history. The new Centennial Parks Conservation Fund is a game changer for parks and wildlife conservation in Texas. Texas Parks and Wildlife will be able to buy land for dozens of new state parks in the coming decades – a win for all of us who love the Great Outdoors and for the critters with which we share this great state.
Executive Director, Environment Texas
As the executive director of Environment Texas, Luke is a leading voice in the state for clean air, clean water, clean energy and open space. Luke has led successful campaigns to win permanent protection for the Christmas Mountains of Big Bend; to compel Exxon, Shell and Chevron Phillips to cut air pollution at three Texas refineries and chemical plants; and to boost funding for water conservation, renewable energy and state parks. The San Antonio Current has called Luke "long one of the most energetic and dedicated defenders of environmental issues in the state." He has been named one of the "Top Lobbyists for Causes" by Capitol Inside, received the President's Award from the Texas Recreation and Parks Society for his work to protect Texas parks, and was chosen for the inaugural class of "Next Generation Fellows" by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at UT Austin. Luke, his wife, son and daughters are working to visit every state park in Texas.