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.]