Viewpoint: Arizona state legislature’s grab of open-space funds violates constitution

[Source: Editorial Board, Tucson Citizen] –Taking millions from a voter-approved land conservation fund does not ‘further the purpose’ of the fund.  The Arizona Legislature won’t let a trifling thing like the state constitution stand in the way of its efforts to patch budget holes. The Arizona House has given preliminary approval to steal-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul legislation that would take money from a constitutionally protected open-space fund to help keep state parks open.  It is a shrewd move that has divided environmentalists who have been critical of the Legislature’s attacks on state parks.  But it clearly runs counter to the constitution — a far bigger obstacle.

To help balance the hemorrhaging budget, the Legislature slashed spending by the state Parks Department. That forced three closures — McFarland and Jerome historic parks and Tonto Natural Bridge — and threatened closure of eight others.  After protests, legislators came up with a “solution” in HB 2088: Take $20 million from a fund for land conservation and give about half to the Arizona State Parks Board.  The other half would be distributed to the Land, Commerce, and Water Resources departments.  That molified parks supporters, but there is a bigger problem: The land conservation fund was established by voters.

The state constitution says legislators can alter voter-approved measures only with a three-quarters vote of both houses and only if the action “furthers the purpose” of the initiative.  The three-quarters threshold is iffy. But there is no way that taking money from the fund “furthers the purpose” of land conservation.  The fund was established in 1998 as part of voter-approved conservation measures and provides grants for land purchases by local governments.  Legislators say they will only “borrow” the money and repay it when they are able.  That’s not good enough.  The fund was set up to buy and preserve land, not as a revolving loan fund for legislators’ use.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the move “a very, very cynical move by some in the majority to try to pit conservation interests against each other to weaken, undercut and get around the voter-protection act and not take responsibility for the terrible budget they passed.”  We agree.

In 1998 — the same year voters established the conservation fund — they also approved the Voter Protection Act, which protects citizen initiatives.  Voters acted after the Legislature frequently undercut, repealed and diverted dollars from voter-approved measures.  This move shows why such a measure was so needed.  We urge legislators to reject HB 2088.  It is wrong, unfair, and unconstitutional.  [Note: To read the viewer comments, click here.]

Arizona state park closures will turn away visitors and their money

[Source: Bill Coates, Arizona Capitol Times] — The Civil War has been cancelled, due to lack of funding. The most historic mansion in Jerome can no longer defer its deferred maintenance. It closed to visitors Feb. 27.  And don’t bother walking over — or under — the world’s largest natural travertine bridge. That just closed, too — because of needed repairs to an old lodge that houses the gift shop.  Then there’s the 130-year-old adobe courthouse in Florence.  It’s in bad shape.  The McFarland State Historic Park closed in early February.

Such is the fate of parks and programs operated by Arizona State Parks. More closures are likely in the works, perhaps as many as eight.  All told, about half the state’s 22 parks could turn visitors away.  Blame the budget.  To help close a hole, the Legislature wants the parks department to hand over some $34.6 million through 2010.  It’s called a fund sweep.

The parks offer no critical public services.  They don’t provide medical care to the poor.  They don’t offer a college education.  They’re there just to enjoy and learn from.  And one other thing: They draw people and their money to rural communities.  For visitors, the parks present a smorgasbord of Arizona history, Indian culture and nature.  Some encompass thousands of acres.  Some consist of a few weathered buildings.

The two that closed this week are as different as day and night.  Jerome State Historic Park tells the story of one of Arizona’s most colorful mining towns.  It’s housed in a mansion built by copper-mine baron James Douglas.  The town of Jerome overlooks the sprawling whitewashed building.  Tourists gazing down on it can be heard to ask who lives there.  The Tonto Natural Bridge State Park describes a high geological arch, formed over thousands of years.  Travertine refers to the limestone and weathering process used to make it.  The park closed Feb. 27, pending repairs to the gift shop — and a turnaround in the state’s revenue picture.  [Note: to read the full article, click here.]

2 more Arizona state parks closed; 8 in jeopardy

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park: This geological formation near Payson attracted 87,930 visitors in 2008. It is one of two additional state parks that will close immediately to allow for repairs necessary for visitors' safety, officials said.
Tonto Natural Bridge State Park (Photo: David Wallace, Arizona Republic)

[Source: Casey Newton, Arizona Republic] — Two state parks will close indefinitely and eight more will remain on the chopping block as part of budget cuts approved Friday by the Arizona State Parks Board.  Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and Jerome State Historic Park will close immediately to allow for repairs necessary for visitors’ safety, officials said.  McFarland State Park closed earlier this month for the same reason. Combined with layoffs, the suspension of grants for capital projects and other measures, the park closures will help the parks board pay a $27 million bill to the state due next Saturday.  That figure represents the funds taken by the Legislature last month as part of a $1.6 billion budget fix for fiscal 2009.

Even after the Friday cuts, which were approved on a 3-1 vote, the parks board still must find an additional $3 million in savings by June 30.  That leaves the fate of eight more state parks up in the air: Homolovi Ruins, Oracle, Yuma Quartermaster Depot, Tubac Presidio, Fort Verde, Lyman Lake, Riordan Mansion, and Red Rock.  Whether those parks remain open depends largely on whether the Legislature makes further cuts to state parks as part of the fiscal 2010 budget.  Arizona faces an estimated $3 billion budget shortfall.

Board members were pessimistic about the prospect of keeping all or even most of the eight parks open.  “Don’t leave here today thinking we’re not going to close more parks,” board member Bill Scalzo said after more than five hours of meetings. “We probably will.”  [Note: To read the full article, click here.  Additional news coverage at Arizona Daily Sun, Cronkite News ServiceKNXV PhoenixKSWT Yuma, KTAR Radio PhoenixPayson RoundupSierra Vista Herald, Tucson Citizen.]

Sign up for Arizona Heritage Alliance “Alerts!”

If you hike, boat, ride, hunt, fish, watch wildlife, visit a park, or tour historic sites, then Arizona’s Heritage Fund affects your life!  The Arizona Heritage Alliance is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created in 1992 to protect Arizona’s Heritage Fund and its objectives.  It is guided by a Board of Directors drawn from a broad base of outdoor sports, environmental conservation, and historic preservation organizations that helped pass the 1990 statewide voter initiative creating the Heritage Fund.

Numerous state legislative attempts have been made to redirect the flow of Heritage Funds.   Our supporters, through hundreds of phone calls, e-mails, letters, and one-on-one meetings, have successfully maintained the integrity of the Heritage Fund.   Unfortunately, the Arizona Legislature succeeded in “sweeping” all Heritage Fund monies for the current state budget shortfall.

Help us correct the situation by signing up to receive special “Alerts!” and visiting the What You Can Do section to learn of more ways to support the cause.  At any time, contact us if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or ideas.

Thank you,
Beth Woodin
President, Arizona Heritage Alliance