Initiative to fund Arizona state parks fails to make ballot

[Source: Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services] –Arizonans are not going to get a chance to vote on whether they want to fund state parks with a surcharge on vehicle registration fees. Bill Meek, president of the Arizona Parks Foundation, said Tuesday the initiative campaign ran out of money about two weeks ago to hire paid circulators. “We had a really good army of volunteers,” he said. But Meek said that was insufficient to gather the 172,809 valid signatures needed by Thursday to put the question on the ballot.

Meek said, though, that is not the end of the issue. He said supporters of the plan will ask lawmakers next year to refer the issue to voters in 2014, bypassing the need to circulate petitions. The question of funding remains significant because lawmakers, looking for ways to balance the state budget in prior years, have refused to provide tax dollars to support the parks system. Complicating matters, legislators even took some of the money that had been raised from admission and other fees.

A 2009 task force report to Gov. Jan Brewer concluded that the parks system “is threatened with extinction and cannot survive under a roller-coaster system of financial support.”

The initiative had two key provisions.

One would have imposed a $14 surcharge added to the cost of each vehicle registration fee. That fee would be voluntary — but motorists would have to affirmatively opt out by checking a box on the renewal form to avoid paying it. Meek said states with similar systems manage to get anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of drivers agreeing to the additional fee. While Meek had no specific figures of what the fee might raise, that 2009 report estimated that even if half of motorists opt out, that could still raise $40 million a year.

The second half would make anything the parks system raised, whether from the vehicle license surcharge or admission fees, off limits to legislative raiding. Meek said he had hoped to line up sufficient major donors to get the signatures.

The idea of the registration fee is not new. In fact, it was part of the recommendations in that 2009 report to Brewer. Meek conceded there is probably no way lawmakers themselves would ever approve the plan — even with the opt-out provision — as many have taken a “no tax hike” pledge. Meek disputed, though, that it is a tax. But he said they might be willing to give voters a chance to weigh in by simply voting to put the issue on the ballot.

That logic worked in 2010 when lawmakers agreed to let voters decide whether to impose a temporary one-cent hike in the state sales tax. Several legislators who supported referring the issue to the ballot later said they voted against it in the special election that year. Meek, however, has an uphill fight, even to get that Referral.

A version of the vehicle license surcharge gained the support the following year by the House Committee on Natural Resources and Rural Affairs in 2010. But the full House refused to go along — or even send the question to the ballot.

Viewpoint: Arizona legislature on verge of shutting park system

[Source: Bill Meek, President, Arizona State Parks Foundation, Camp Verde Bugle] — Without the Legislature’s help in securing immediate additional revenues for Arizona State Parks, the current FY10 budget will force closure of virtually all state parks, shutting a system that serves more than two million visitors annually, while depriving local communities of some $266 million a year in parks-related income.  During a public workshop last week, State Parks Director Renee Bahl explained that legislative sweeps of parks funds, including $3 million in entry fee income, have left State Parks with only $8.4 million in operating revenues for the fiscal year.  This compares to $30 million needed for bare bones operations, excluding any capital funds for repair of badly deteriorating historic buildings, unsafe sewer park systems and eroding lakefront facilities.  Such scant operational money is not enough to even close, fence and guard Arizona’s treasured array of 30 parks, recreation areas and historic sites, Bahl noted.

To avoid this disaster, somewhere between $18 million and $22 million must be restored to State Parks — an amount accounting for about 1/10th percent of the state’s overall budget and less than a half percent of its current $4 billion deficit.  Not to provide such modest funding will effectively wipe out more than 50 years of taxpayer investment in buying, building and opening such heavily-visited places as Kartchner Caverns; Havasu and Alamo lakes and on the state’s west side; Slide Rock, Red Rock and Dead Horse Ranch state parks in Northern Arizona; and Catalina, Oracle and Patagonia Lake state parks in southeast Arizona to name a few. [Note: To read the full story, click here]