State lawmakers moved Thursday to make further budget cuts over the objection of foes who said it will endanger senior citizens, leave roads unplowed, make the border less safe and result in the closure of all state parks.
On a 6-4 party-line vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to a plan to take about 7.5 percent of the spending authority of most state agencies. There are only a handful of exceptions, most notably public education and universities, where agreements with the federal government to get stimulus dollars prevent lawmakers from cutting any more than they already have.
But the big debate surrounded close to $50 million that a Republican legislative proposal wants to “sweep’’ from various special accounts. These are funds that come not from tax revenues but from special sources, ranging from user fees and assessments to fines and penalties from wrongdoers.
Some of the biggest debate surrounded the fact that more than $9 million in those transfers are coming out of funds administered by the Parks Department.
Jay Ziemann, the agency’s deputy director, pointed out to legislators that his agency gets no money directly from taxpayers through the general fund. Instead, he said, it has to live largely on user fees and other special funds.
Several parks already are closed several days a week as part of earlier cost-cutting measures. This sweep, Ziemann said, will cripple the system.
“Put it this way: More staff we have to lay off, more parks we have to close, the less revenue we generate,’’ he explained.
“So then we have to lay off more staff,’’ Ziemann continued. “More parks close. And it just becomes a spiral that eventually we can’t sustain.’’
But Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said there are other options, like hiking admission fees to parks.
“You use a service that’s open to you,’’ he said. “There’s a cost to that service.’’
Pearce, who chairs the Senate panel, said lawmakers have done the “best we can’’ in the past to protect parks.
“But you simply have no money,’’ he said, referring to the $1.6 billion deficit. He said that means parks may have to give way to higher priorities like education and public safety.
Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, said one possibility would be for the Parks Department to work more with volunteers. He said Friends of Oracle Park, in his neighborhood in southern Pinal County, raises between $15,000 and $20,000 a year.
Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Apache Junction, tried unsuccessfully to block the sweeping of funds used by the attorney general’s office.
She said the dollars being taken will hamper that agency’s ability to deal with border security issues like human trafficking and drug trade. Rios also wants cash restored to protect Arizonans from consumer fraud and racketeering.
“We all recognize additional cuts need to be made,’’ she said. But these, she said, are not a good idea.
“The AG’s office is providing a lot of protection against a lot of bad apples that come out, especially in these tough economic times, and oftentimes prey on our elderly folks and other vulnerable folks in our community,’’ Rios said.