A public-interest law firm wants a federal judge to force lawmakers and the governor to give back the money they took from local transportation programs.
Legal papers filed Monday in U.S. District Court said the money raided earlier this year to balance the budget had been earmarked for mass transit and other projects. More to the point, the funding of those projects was used by the state to convince the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it was working to comply with air quality rules.
What that means, according to Joy Herr-Cardillo, attorney for the Arizona Center for the Law in the Public Interest, is the state is no longer in compliance with its agreement with the EPA to reduce both carbon monoxide and particulate emissions. She wants the court to enforce the deal between the state and the EPA by requiring the money be put back.
“The state cannot just arbitrarily eliminate programs to promote clean air, especially if those programs are part of a plan to meet health-based standards for air quality,” Herr-Cardillo said in a prepared statement. “Mass transit funding is an important component of the state air quality plans and reducing transportation pollution.”
Herr-Cardillo said the legal problem for the state in taking the funds involves only Maricopa County.
But she said other areas of the state have their own air quality problems. And while there is not the same legal obligation to fund mass transit, she said there are health and air quality implications from the decision to take the money.
The funding goes back to 1993, when the state agreed to divert $18 million a year in lottery proceeds to the “local transportation assistance fund.” Much of that cash is earmarked for mass transit.
But the state budget adopted earlier this year eliminates those funds, a move lawmakers made with the blessing of Gov. Jan Brewer.
Herr-Cardillo did give the state a chance to correct the problem, sending a letter to Brewer two months ago asking the cash be restored.
Gubernatorial press aide Paul Senseman said at that time Brewer believes the funding shift was necessary.
“This is another example of tough budget times leading to tough decisions,” he said. Senseman said Brewer has asked the state Department of Environmental Quality to review the potential lawsuit.
He said, though, that the governor wants to “continue making clean air progress throughout the state using all available tools, including smart transportation.”