Source – Andrew Nicla, Arizona Republic – Published February 22, 2019
Arizona parks and other public spaces could soon get millions of dollars of needed funding if one state lawmaker gets her way.
Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, is shepherding House Bill 2701, which would revive the now empty Arizona State Parks Heritage Fund that once gave millions each year to restoring and preserving parks, as well as maintaining and developing other outdoor areas. The bill passed a key committee vote Tuesday.
The fund was established by a voter initiative in 1990 that passed by a wide margin, but was drained during the Great Recession when the state was short on cash. At the time, the fund received $20 million annually and split that money between parks and wildlife preservation. The wildlife grant program, the Game and Fish Heritage Fund, remains funded through lottery money.
Before the parks fund was phased out in 2010, it received $10 million from state lottery money and was divvied up by a commission in a series of grants to cities that applied. This new bill would bring back the program into state statute and secure that lottery money.
Meanwhile, there’s a different bill moving through the Senate introduced by Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, which would put the program into state statute but not secure funds.
If the House bill 2701 is passed, according to the language, it would secure immediate funding and split up the money like this:
- 50 percent to outdoor recreation, open space development, restoration or renovation projects.
- 30 percent to historic preservation projects.
- 10 percent to non-motorized trails.
- 10 percent for outdoor and environmental education.
Earlier attempts to revive fund failed
That money is crucial to many now-halted projects that once got funding from the shuttered grant program. Between 1991 and 2006, the program awarded more than $24 million through 579 grants. Phoenix received $3.6 million from 48 grants.
Ever since the fund went away, both Democrats and Republicans have crafted bills in hopes of reviving it, but those never made it far at the Capitol because lawmakers couldn’t find room in the budget.
On Tuesday night, Osborn pitched the idea to a groggy House committee, which seemed delighted to talk about something everyone agreed on after bickering for hours over water law. During her presentation to the committee, Osborn called the bill “our bill,” a nod to the wave of support from voters in the ‘90s, and said the time to reinstate it was well past due.
“It really is our bill because there were many voters of the state that wanted this to go forward,” Osborne said, adding that this is the “last item from the recession to be put back into the lottery funding.”
This is Osborne’s first session at the Capitol and she chose to support this, she said, because she felt obligated to help preserve the heritage and history of the state her family has been in since the 1800s.
“It’s the people of Arizona that wanted this for so long and I’m happy to be able to put it (the fund) back in its rightful place,” Osborne told The Republic.
Osborne and Brophy McGee were approached by members of the Arizona Heritage Alliance, a non-profit aiming to protect the fund. The group searched for lawmakers who could likely pass the measure, after spending months earning support from state lottery and Game and Fish officials and other stakeholders. So far, both bills have earned near-unanimous support in committees, advancing farther than most in previous years. But regardless of that support, there appears to be no certainty of refilling the account right now. Even if the House bill passes, it won’t necessarily guarantee complete immediate funding because it relies on lottery money, which is still tied up in other financing. When the fund was swept away, it carried some debt to the lottery with it. If funding was secured, it could take many years to fully repay.
Without money, rural projects languish
The longer the fund remains dry, according Lani Lott, the Alliance’s executive director, the longer some projects in rural communities outside of the state’s larger counties could remain on hold. Lott said many local and regional parks haven’t been able to make improvements, many parks are needing deferred maintenance and new parks that are coming may also need help.
“Everything has just been kind of not moving forward on certain levels in terms of those historic preservation projects and other improvements,” Lott said, adding that some grants had to be given back.
“But we have a lot of support from organizations across the state who’ve all seen the value of the Heritage Fund when it was in place,” Lott said. “I think if people love parks, historic preservation, visiting state parks in Arizona, I’d encourage them to support this.”
The Heritage Alliance has worked with a handful of other environmental groups to see this through, but there are few people who have supported the program for as long as Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. Tuesday’s hearing was one of many she’s attended to advocate for the fund’s revival, and has pushed for it long before she was an environmental lobbyist at the Capitol.
The fund is among a long list of programs and political interests grasping at the state’s budget surplus, which could also invest money into it if the lottery couldn’t otherwise. Bahr thinks the extra money helps push their case to jump-start the program and the bipartisan support so far has her and other advocates more optimistic than before that this could actually get done.
“There’s a greater understanding of the values it provided and can provide again,” Bahr said.
“What’s not to like?” she said. “It really is a fund that benefits communities throughout the state, both urban and rural communities, not just one area.”
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in the Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow the azcentral and Arizona Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and at OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.