House kills measure that would re-open Arizona state parks on full-time basis

Arizona State House of Representatives (Phoenix, Arizona) by courthouselover.
Arizona House of Representatives (Photo source: courthouselover, Flickr)

[Source: Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services] — The state House lawmakers killed legislation Tuesday that would have provided money to reopen state parks on a full-time basis. A total of 36 legislators voted for the measure that would have taken $20 million from a special account designed to deal with urban sprawl and given some of that to the state Parks Board to compensate for cuts in the agency’s budget made by lawmakers in January.   But HB 2088 needed 45 votes because the fund was created by voters in 1998.  And the Arizona Constitution requires a three-fourths margin of the 60-member House — and the 30-member Senate — to alter what voters have approved.

Deputy Parks Director Jay Zieman said Tuesday’s action means five parks will remain closed two days a week to save money. It also delays the reopening of three other parks that were shuttered entirely, at least in part to cut costs.   The defeat came when every House Democrat except one refused to support the measure.

Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said he was sympathetic to the needs of the Parks Department.  But he questioned the legality of the move.  He pointed out that the constitution forbids lawmakers from tinkering with any program approved by voters. He said the only exception, even with a three-fourths margin, is when a change “furthers the purpose’ of the underlying measure.  In this case, he said voters approved providing $20 million a year for 11 years to help purchase or lease state trust lands in urban areas to keep them out of the hands of developers.  Funding the operation of parks, said Campbell, does not do that.  He also said raiding voter-approved funds sets a “bad precedent.”

None of that placated Zieman.  “We expect to have $98 million in that fund at the end of the fiscal year,’ he said.  “It is maddening to be in a position where you’re closing parks’ because 30 percent of the staff has been let go.

The state has closed Tonto, McFarland and Jerome state parks, though some of the reason they were chosen because of work that needs to be done at each site.  What was not anticipated was the need to go to a five-day-a-week schedule at six other parks: Fort Verde, Oracle, Tombstone Courthouse, Tubac Presidio, Yuma Territorial Prison, and the Yuma Quartermaster Depot.  The state is saving money by chaining them closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Aside from the closures and reduced schedules, Zieman said his agency also has suspended funding grants, even in cases where groups had been given the go-ahead and work had been started.

Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Gilbert, who crafted the legislation, said the move made sense not to tap the funds which “are doing absolutely nothing for our state right now.”  One reason there is so much money in the account because the 1998 law requires that taxpayer funds be matched by other sources, whether public or private.  Those matching funds have not materialized. Beyond that, Nichols said the economy has slowed development to the point where builders are not buying up large swaths of state land.  And Nichols said the funding is just a loan: The legislation would have required the state to put back the $20 million in the future.

But Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said that payback is not guaranteed, as future lawmakers could simply vote to ignore the mandate. [Note: To read the full article, click here.  To read the Camp Verde Bugle’s editorial on this subject, click here.]

Arizona State Parks board considers extra budget meeting

The lodge at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.

[Source: Pete Aleshire, Payson Roundup] — The state parks board may call a special meeting in March to sort through the smoking smolders of its budget, including the recently imposed closure of .  In addition, House Republicans this week will continue to push for an emergency law to let state parks and other agencies borrow $20 million from a voter-approved open space fund.

That leaves at least two approaches open for Rim Country officials, pushing hard to convince the parks board to reopen Tonto Natural Bridge, which draws more than 90,000 visitors annually to the region.

State parks officials said the main problem for Tonto Natural Bridge remains the need to limit access during critical repairs on a leaky roof that has caused structural problems.  “The access issue with the roof is still the primary question,” said Assistant Director Jay Ziemann. “ The principal question is the necessity to fix the lodge in a timely fashion, before we’re really looking at more rain that could end up desecrating the building.

The secondary issue is how soon could we get the public back in there based upon the need to get that lodge stabilized.”  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Arizona House panel backs funding special fund for state parks

Florence's McFarland State Historic Park, including 1878 courthouse, now closed.

[Source: Associated Press] — Republican legislators on Tuesday moved to keep state parks open by taking money from a special fund for land conservation, rejecting criticism that the proposed diversion could violate a constitutional protection for voter-approved laws.  The House Government Committee voted 6-3 to postpone for one year a $20 million annual payment to the Land Conservation Fund and use the money to undo parks-related spending cuts and fund transfers included in a recent midyear budget-balancing package.

Parks officials have said the budget cuts could force closures of eight parks, and backers of the new proposal called it a creative way to keep some or all open.  Parks tabbed for possible closure: Fort Verde State Historic Park in Camp Verde, Homolovi Ruins State Park in Winslow, Lyman Lake State Park in Springerville, Oracle State Park in Oracle, Riordan Mansion State Historic Park in Flagstaff, Tubac Presidio State Historic Park in Tubac, and Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park.   One of the eight, McFarland State Historic Park in Florence, was closed Friday because of deteriorating facilities.

The Land Conservation Fund was created under so-called “Growing Smarter” legislation that was approved by voters after being referred to the 1998 ballot by the Legislature.  Under the Arizona Constitution, changes to voter-approved laws can only be made with 3/4 votes by each legislative chamber and if the change furthers the intent of the original law.

Rep. Warde Nichols, a Chandler Republican who proposed the diversion, called it a “creative way” to keeping parks open while comporting with the 1998 law’s intent by promoting conservation and recreation activities.  Besides, with housing construction in a slump, “urban sprawl in our state is not currently a problem,” he said.

Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said the conservation fund was for land acquisition, not other purposes.  “It could be considered a twist of logic,” he said.  Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said the 1998 law “was sold to voters” as providing money for land conservation.  “You’re really out on a limb here,” she said.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.  To read related Arizona Republic article, click here.]

Arizona’s state parks face “devastating” cuts

State budget cuts may cause Tonto Natural Bridge officials to postpone fixing leaky roof and restoring historic lodge. (Roundup photo file)

[Source: Pete Aleshire, Payson Roundup] — Tonto Natural Bridge State Park has put out an urgent plea for volunteer workers after learning it must lay off half its staff to cope with “devastating” legislative budget cuts.  Staggered by the a mid-year $5-million budget cut approved by lawmakers over the weekend, the Arizona State Parks Board this week held an emergency meeting to find alternatives to closing eight of the state’s 27 parks.  “We do not have enough money to run the parks until June,” said assistant director Jay Ziemann.  “The parks system is rapidly falling apart.”

The legislature has now not only cut general fund contributions to the park to a fraction of the operating cost, but has swept some $32 million from various funds earmarked by law for various park and recreation purposes. 

Tonto Natural Bridge features a 183-foot-high arch of travertine over a 150-foot-long tunnel dissolved in a wall of rock.  The park remains one of the best-known attractions in Rim Country, where towns are struggling to maintain tourism in the face of the downturn.  The cuts have killed the staff’s hopes for money to fix a leaky roof and restore the historic lodge, which park managers had hoped to contract for this spring.  Now, the park will need more volunteers just to maintain minimal operations.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]