Resolution to Boost State Parks Clears Arizona Senate Committee

Missoula – Joe Duhownik  / State Newsroom – Published February 21,2024

PHOENIX (CN) — Arizona is once again a step closer to reinstating consistent state park funding, which has been missing from the annual budget since 2008. On Tuesday, the Arizona Senate Appropriations Committee voted 5-4 on a resolution that would annually allocate $10 million of the leftover state lottery fund to the Arizona State Parks Heritage Fund.

“As stewards of Arizona’s rich heritage and natural treasures, it is our duty to uphold the will of the people and safeguard our state’s legacy,” Jim McPherson, president of the Arizona Heritage Alliance, told the Senate committee Tuesday. “SCR 1038 presents an opportunity to honor the resounding voice of Arizona voters, who in 1990 overwhelmingly supported the allocation of lottery funds to improve our parks, preserve our cultural heritage, protect wildlife, and promote economic development and tourism across Arizona.”

The annual allocation went into effect in 1991. The next year, the nonprofit Arizona Heritage Alliance was created to help state parks apply the funds. But lawmakers stopped the annual deposit in response to the 2008 global recession. Instead, that money was swept into the general fund. Thirteen state parks were closed in the immediate aftermath.

“We were broke as a state,” said Russ James, vice president of the Arizona Heritage Alliance. “We did it because we felt we had to do it.”Russ was a state representative when the state nixed the annual transfer. “We’re gonna do this, but once the emergency is over, we’re gonna restore this,” he recalled saying at the time. “That was the plan, and it never got restored.”

From 2009 to 2019, the Arizona Heritage Alliance lobbied for bills to replace the funding. It was successful in 2019 when a Senate bill reinstated the State Parks Heritage Fund, but the bill doesn’t allow for annual lottery transfers until 2029.

Since then, the alliance has been unsuccessfully lobbying to return an annual lottery transfer to the state park fund. It got close in 2022 when a bill allotting $3 million annually passed through the Senate, but the bill was never assigned to a House committee.

Jones said upkeep of public parks is critical to the economic development of rural Arizona towns.“These are kind of the cultural centers of all these little communities,” he said outside the committee hearing after the senators voted. “Without these funds, these parks would fall into decay and not be serviceable.”

Republican Senator Sine Kerr of Yuma responded to the alliance’s pleas, sending the decision to voters via a resolution rather than sponsoring a traditional bill. “If it’s their wish that these funds be protected, then they’ll vote aye,” Jones said of the voters. “If not, then I won’t be back here the year after.”

With the Arizona Voter Protection Act now in place, it would be much harder for the state to reverse a voter-supported resolution than in the past. Arizona’s 34 state parks haven’t gone completely without funding. The alliance and other lobbyists successfully garnered some funds for the parks in smaller, one-time payments rather than an annual allocation.

The fund received $5 million in the fiscal year 2022 budget, $2.5 million in the 2023 budget and $6 million in the 2024 budget. Fifty percent of the fund goes to outdoor recreation and open space development, 30% goes to historic preservation projects, 10% goes to maintaining non-motorized trails, and 10% goes to outdoor and environmental education. Since the fund’s inception, investments combined with local matching funds have amounted to $207 million spent on statewide projects, according to the Arizona Heritage Alliance.

Republican senators on the committee were split on the resolution. Sponsor Kerr, as well as Ken Bennett of Phoenix and John Kavanagh of Fountain Hills voted in support. Jake Hoffman of Queen Creek, Anthony Kern of Glendale and Brian Farnsworth of Mesa voted against it. Only one Democrat, Juan Mendez of Tempe, voted against the resolution. Brian Fernandez of Yuma and Lela Alston of Phoenix voted in support. No senators asked questions or explained their votes. The bill will soon be sent to the House floor for a full vote.

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