Arizona House advances state parks funding measure

[Source: Tucson Citizen/Associated Press] — Taking a path that critics said would put lawmakers on legally shaky ground, the Arizona House of Representatives on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a plan to keep threatened state parks open by diverting money from a voter-mandated program for land conservation for open space.  The measure aims to reverse recent state budget cuts that have put numerous state parks at risk of closure.  It has backing from parks advocates but is opposed by the Sierra Club, a lobbying group for environmentalists.  Because it would modify a voter-approved law, the Arizona Constitution requires that the measure both be approved by three-quarters of each legislative chamber and further the intent of the voter-approved law.

The land conservation fund, which provides grants for land purchases by local governments, was authorized under a growth-planning law approved by voters in 1998.  With Thursday’s voice vote, the Republican-backed measure faces an expected formal House vote next week.  Passage would send it to the Senate.  However, passage by the 60-member House is not assured as Democratic leaders criticized the measure during debate Thursday.  Even if all 35 majority Republican representatives vote for the bill (HB2088), a three-quarters vote would require backing from at least 10 of the 25 Democrats.

The legislation would return the $20 million to the land conservation fund in 2012, and supporters of the bill said the state money won’t be missed in the meantime because current economic hard times mean local governments can’t afford their shares of the cost of land purchases.  “We have a great opportunity, instead of putting money aside in a fund that we cannot use,” said Rep. Andy Tobin, R-Paulden.

Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said he supports keeping parks open but not by tampering with a voter-approved law.  “We see this bill as being illegal and not furthering the intent of the voters,” Campbell said.

The Parks Department has already closed three parks — McFarland Historic, Jerome Historic and Tonto Natural Bridge — but eight others are also listed as candidates for temporary closure because of the funding cuts made to close a big shortfall in the current state budget.  The eight are Fort Verde, Homolovi, Lyman Lake, Oracle, Red Rock, Riordan Mansion, Tubac Presidio, Yuma Quartermaster Depot.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]