KNAU and Arizona News
8:43 am
Mon March 8, 2010

Two measures to save state parks hung up in legislature

Phoenix, AZ – State parks get no taxpayer dollars. The system is self
supporting, running with entrance fees and the proceeds from
special sources, like a tax on the registration of boats to help
improve state lakes. But when lawmakers found themselves without
cash to balance the budget last year, they raided the funds the
parks department had collected, including those entrance fees.
And going forward, the money from parks that make a profit isn't
enough to offset losses at the others. The Parks Board voted to
close 13 sites. Homolovi Ruins and Lyman Lake already are
shuttered. Six more, including Riordan Mansion, will close at the
end of the month, with the remainder shutting down in June. There
is a proposal in the state House to find a permanent revenue
source -- a $12 surcharge on registration fees for all non-
commercial vehicles. But Rep. John Kavanagh is refusing to
schedule a hearing for the measure in the Appropriations
Committee which he chairs. He said it's just another tax which he
finds unacceptable.

(We've already sent a billion-dollar tax increase to the voters.
We also allowed a quarter of a billion dollar property tax to
come back. So the voters are taxed out already.)

Nor does he believe the fact that the plan would give the last
word on the tax to voters makes it any more acceptable.

(Everybody's got a pet project they want to put before the
voters. That's why we have committee chairmen and committees to
filter these things out.)

That argument of a full ballot holds no water with Rep. Russ
Jones who is sponsoring the surcharge measure. In fact, he sees
it just the reverse.

(There's a whole slew of things that are going to go to the
voters as referrals. To use the excuse that there just other,
more important things, too many things, is not a real good reason
to not let the voters make this decision.)

But Kavanagh has another objection to having the question on the
ballot. Under the terms of the Arizona Constitution, anything
passed by voters -- including the proceeds of any tax they
approve -- is off limits to legislators. Kavanagh said he's
unwilling to accept that restriction. But it's exactly that limit
that makes it more attractive to supporters: It would prevent the
raids that got the park system into financial problems in the
first place. That same constitutional provision against
legislative tinkering with ballot measures figures in the
problems with the other measure designed to help state parks, at
least in the short run. It would lend the board $40 million over
two years while the state gets its finances in order. It also
buys time until Jones' plan can get on the November ballot. But
the money would come from the Growing Smarter fund approved by
voters in 1998. That cash is supposed to be used solely to buy or
lease state trust lands to preserve it for open space. Rep. Tom
Chabin said that runs afoul of that constitutional provision. But
Rep. Warde Nichols said there is an exception to the no tinkering
provision: Lawmakers may make any change that -- quote --
furthers the purpose of such measure. And he said parks provide
open space. But here's the problem. Even if Nichols is right,
that change still takes a three-fourths vote of both the House
and Senate. That empowers the minority of lawmakers who question
the legality of the plan to block it. Chabin said even if the
plan were constitutional he still would not vote for it. He said
it just a stop-gap measure that really doesn't address the
underlying problems of the state budget.

(I have done my best to every set of constituencies I can open
the door to, to demonstrate our structural deficit, the crisis
that we're in, that it is very real and the problem is revenue.
These other things are mere tricks.)

Chabin said parks may be the least of the state's financial
problems. He said the unwillingess of GOP lawmakers to consider
higher taxes -- they're even propsing future tax cuts -- is
undermining far more critical programs like psychiatric help for
those who need it. For Arizona Public Radio this is Howard
Fischer.