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Bill would create Massachusetts outdoor recreation fund

A trail meanders through a public park
Jim Levulis
A trail meanders through a public park

A bill before the Massachusetts legislature would create an outdoor recreation fund to support a new state office and expand access to the outdoors. The effort would be funded by using existing sales tax revenue from sporting goods, estimated at $55 million annually.

The legislation received a hearing on Beacon Hill in October and is before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. Supporters include the Appalachian Mountain Club, Mass Audubon and The Trustees of Reservations. WAMC’s Jim Levulis spoke with Linda Orel, the senior director of government relations at the Trustees, about the bill.

Orel: Massachusetts does a pretty good job of investing in certain areas of outdoor recreation. We have a large state park system for example, 450,000 acres under the Department of Conservation and Recreation. And we have some municipal bodies that have done a good job creating local parks as well, public parks that is. And then we have organizations like the Trustees and our partners at Mass Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, and land trust and watershed organizations also involved in conserving natural resources and creating outdoor recreational opportunities. But where we have seen a shortfall is in many of our cities. Cities like Boston have significant number of parks and most people who live in Boston can walk to a park, although there are some neighborhoods that don't have sufficient green space like Mattapan and also in Brighton. But then there are other cities across Massachusetts, where there are entire neighborhoods where kids go outside, and they cannot walk to a place to play. And we really wanted to see more funding available for those types of projects. We did also just create a new Office of Outdoor Recreation and Massachusetts following on the heels of 16 other states. And that new office does not have a specific grant program associated with it. And we thought it would be great to create an outdoor recreation grant program for that new office.

Levulis: And I'm glad you brought that up. Yeah, the staterecently named its first ever director for that new Office of Outdoor Recreation. The budget for that office is only about $200,000 In fiscal year 2024. So part of this fund, I guess, would go to bolster the efforts of that new developing office?

That's correct. Up to 5% of this fund could be used for operations in the office, and 95% or more would be used for projects and programs to enhance outdoor recreational opportunities.

And some of those projects, those efforts would be carried out by organizations just like the Trustees, is that accurate?

That is accurate, although in the bill, it states that state agencies, municipal governments, land trusts, and conservation organizations, like the Trustees, all would be eligible to apply for grants. So as long as the park or trail or new nature playground or whatever the new outdoor recreation amenity is, as long as it's open to the public, then other entities can benefit as well. We did not put in the bill that a private company could apply for grants. I think we presume that the company could take care of that on their own or partner with a nonprofit or a city or town to create an outdoor recreational opportunity next to, for example, a new affordable housing development.

Now the money for this fund, we mentioned the $55 million, would use existing sales tax revenue from the sale of sporting goods in the state of Massachusetts. Wouldn't that though create a hole for the state's general fund?

Yes, this would definitely take money from the general fund. And I wouldn't want to try to paint it any other way. But it's a modest amount of money out of a $57 billion budget. So if you take all of the sales tax on sporting goods, and you dedicate it into this sporting goods trust fund, it would generate between $50 and $60 million a year. It really is a very small percentage of the overall state budget. But what's interesting is you could take a $50 million fund and use it to fund a $600 million revenue bond. So there's ways to leverage this money. And we would be open to talking about the possibility of using a fraction of the sales tax on sporting goods. If in turn, we were going to take that smaller amount of money and fund a revenue bond to pay for projects. 

One thing I would like to add is the outdoor recreation economy in Massachusetts generates significant funding, about $9.5 billion every year to the state's GDP, directly supporting almost 100,000 jobs every year. We would like to grow the outdoor recreation economy and Massachusetts by creating new outdoor recreational opportunity. And so while we would be taking some funds from the general fund to create this new grant program, we would also be stimulating a sector of the economy that's in desperate need of growth.

And in terms of you mentioned, you know, kind of open to negotiation on this latest iteration of the bill. This bill has had a hearing on Beacon Hill. There have been similar pieces of legislation that failed to get over the finish line in recent years. From your position as Senior Director of Government Relations at the Trustees, what's your sense of its success rate this time around?

Well, I've been lobbying on and off at the Massachusetts State House for more than two decades. And I know that very few bills pass into law. But periodically, when you run a strong campaign, and there isn't any organized opposition, you can come up with a really smart idea. And it does become law. And I personally have worked on multiple bills that ended up being enacted into statute and I have high hopes for this one.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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