Parks and environment are Arizona budget casualties

[Source: The Arizona Guardian] — State Parks Director Ken Travous said Friday he laid off all seasonal parks workers — about 60 people in all — and suspended payments to local community groups for the state’s share of local projects.  He also has drawn up a list of eight parks the state can close — five immediately and three more in June — to be considered at a special meeting of the state parks board on Tuesday.  The state operates 27 parks.

The board also is expected to discuss more layoffs and other ways to deal with significant cuts in its $28 million budget.  The parks department was hit hard in the budgets passed Thursday by the House and Senate appropriations committees.  Cuts totaled more than $20 million for the current fiscal year, which is more than half over, through agency reductions and sweeps of funds used for parks and other recreational facilities.  Then on Friday morning, Gov. Jan Brewer proposed whacking another $1.8 million from two other funds the parks administer, including a boating safety program.  Travous is particularly bothered that legislative leaders and the governor don’t seem to care that parks are in terrible shape already due to lack of money.  “Our buildings are falling down,” Travous said, “literally falling down.”  Particularly hard hit in the GOP budget is the Heritage Fund, put in place by voters in 1990 to make sure parks and wildlife programs were adequately taken care of.  The Heritage Fund is fueled by $10 million annually from the state Lottery, an amount that has stayed the same since soon after it was started.  The proposed budget takes nearly $5 million from the Heritage Fund and gives $3 million of that to a fire suppression program. “They’re giving it to a program that prevents fires rather than a building that is already falling down,” Travous said.

Sandy Bahr, the lobbyist for the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, said there have been about 30 attempts to raid the Heritage Fund in the past 20 years, but support has been widespread because the money benefits so many local communities and small projects — in many legislative districts.  But this year environmental concerns are being seriously challenged as lawmakers struggle to find money to satisfy myriad pressing needs.  That point was drilled home when Brewer finally entered the budget debate.  She basically traded off more than $18 million in cuts for programs that deal with health care, behavioral health, autism, the deaf and blind, and the homeless for $18 million in reductions largely from environmental programs — water quality, air quality, emissions inspections, and the state’s Superfund cleanup efforts.

The Department of Environmental Quality was up for about $30 million in cuts from operations, staff and fund sweeps. Brewer wants another $14 million chopped from programs.  “We had apprehensions about Brewer based on her voting record when she was in the Legislature,” Bahr said.  “Further decimating DEQ is an example of how her perspective hasn’t changed.”  Environmental groups routinely gave Brewer low marks — some of the lowest in the Senate — in the mid-1990s, according to scorecards released back then.  “The bottom line is environmental protection is not a big priority for the Brewer administration,” Bahr said.

Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said Brewer’s request to take money from environmental funds and put more toward social programs shouldn’t be seen as anything more than trying to balance difficult choices.  “It’s not a broad generalization about where it leads to policy,” he said.  Bahr argues that environmental programs are really public health efforts — gutting the air quality fund, for instance, has a disastrous effect on people’s health, especially children.  She pointed to a recent DEQ study that shows asthma attacks among children rise when particulate levels go up.  The programs DEQ oversees are designed to help the state meet health-based standards set by law.  Bahr says the federal government likely will step in and enforce water and air quality standards since the state can’t do it.  The FY 2010 budget “is going to be horrible,” Bahr said.  “This is just a precursor of what to expect. It’s going to be even uglier.”

Beyond the budget, Bahr said bills are being introduced that attempt to weaken environmental regulations and enforcement efforts.  “It’s pretty discouraging to see how little progress we’ve made convincing lawmakers that environmental protection is a priority and how important it is to our economy.”

State park closures likely from Arizona budget cuts

[Source: Associated Press] — The head of the state Parks Department says five or more state parks could be closed as a result of spending cuts and fund transfers included in a legislative budget-balancing plan.  Parks Director Ken Travous said Friday he’ll be forced to recommend the closures of five parks to the Parks Board to help implement the funding changes included in the legislative plan.

Travous declined to identify which of the 27 parks would face closure before he makes a recommendation to the board for consideration next week.  But he said several more parks could be closed by summer.  He said the funding cuts would mean layoffs for approximately 100 employees, including 60 seasonal personnel who are already furloughed without pay. [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Obama stimulus plan sparks questions over short-term impact

[Source: Mike Sunnucks, The Phoenix Business Journal] — As Congress moves on President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan, critics are voicing concerns about where the money is being spent and whether it will have a quick payoff.  The $825 billion package could swell to $1 trillion and looks to pump up the economy via federal spending on public works construction, energy research, aid to state governments with budget deficits, expanded welfare and safety net programs.

One estimate by the Congressional Budget Office said only $26 billion would be allocated this year on infrastructure and public works spending as states and cities, including Scottsdale, Goodyear, Tucson, Phoenix and Mesa, line up projects for possible funding.  Meanwhile, local officials say federal requirements to have construction and infrastructure projects “shovel-ready” is limiting such requests.  Gay Garesche, an economics professor at Glendale Community College, said the U.S. economy may be rebounding by the time the federal stimulus money gets to construction projects and starts to work its way into economic benefits.  “That stimulus isn’t going to hit until the economy has almost recovered,” said Garesche. Instead, she suggests continued help for banks to free up credit and loans and avoiding any actions that hurt the U.S. auto market.  [Note: to read the full article, click here.]

Legislature to cut park construction funding

[Source: Michael K. Rich,] – – Passed as a voter initiative in 1990, the Heritage Fund was designed to act as a steward of good relations between man and the environment: promoting parks, conserving habitats and protecting wildlife.  However, as the state faces a more than $1.4 billion dollar budget shortfall, the fund, which generates money through the sales of several Arizona Lottery games, could be one of the first casualties.

“It is important to protect during this difficult time core Arizona resources, our true capital: parks and wildlife, prehistoric and historic sites, trails and other cultural and outdoors amenities which will serve the citizens of Arizona during this bleak period,” said Janice Miano, director of administration for the Arizona Heritage Alliance, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created in 1992 to protect Arizona’s Heritage Fund and its objectives. [Note: to read the full article click here.]