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.”

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