E.V. lawmaker blocks public state parks vote - East Valley Tribune: News

E.V. lawmaker blocks public state parks vote

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Posted: Monday, March 8, 2010 7:06 am | Updated: 3:38 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

A single legislator is blocking a plan to ask voters to permanently fund the state parks system with a surcharge on vehicle license fees. Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, will not schedule a hearing on HCR2040 in the Appropriations Committee, which he chairs. And Kavanagh said he will not consent to having the measure withdrawn from his committee.

That effectively keeps the plan from going to the full House, where Rep. Russ Jones, R-Yuma, said he has the votes for approval.

The parks system is being hit with a double-whammy in its efforts to minimize closures.

HB2060 would provide a $40 million loan over the next two years to the Parks Department. But that is hung up because a minority of legislators object to the plan and question its legality.

Majority rule does not apply because the cash would come from the Growing Smarter fund, approved by voters more than a decade ago to purchase or lease state trust land for open space. And any legislative change in the use of those dollars - even to borrow them - requires approval of 45 of 60 House members and 23 of 30 senators.

Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said it's "tempting" to vote for the measure. But Chabin said it's unconstitutional. Even if it were, he said, it doesn't either guarantee long-term funding for parks or, on a larger scale, fund all the other services that have been cut.

"The problem is revenue," he said.

He supports HCR2040 - the measure Kavanagh has tied up in his committee.

One bill is moving: SB1349 would let the Parks Board seek offers to operate some facilities without going through the normal bidding process. That would expedite the process of seeing if private groups or local or tribal governments would use their own funds to keep nearby parks open.

That bill gained formal Senate approval this past week and awaits House action.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said that's just a stopgap proposal. But Kavanagh and some Republicans see farming out the parks - and their operating costs - as one solution to system's budget woes.

The parks system gets no taxpayer dollars. It operates on about $8.5 million in entrance fees plus revenues from special sources, like a tax on boat registrations to improve state lakes.

But lawmakers, looking for operating cash for the state, raided those funds - including the entrance fees - leaving the system short of money. And the amount of future revenues from parks that make a profit is not enough to offset those that operate at a deficit.

That led to the decisions by the Parks Board to close 13 parks. Two - Homolovi Ruins and Lyman Lake - already are shut. Six others will close March 29, with five more set to lock their gates on June 3.

Jones' proposal would impose a $12 surcharge on the registration fee of every noncommercial vehicle, with 75 percent of the cash going to the Parks Board. The balance would go to the Department of Transportation to administer the system and, with what is left over, reopen 13 rest areas along state roads that were closed earlier this year because of that agency's budget crunch.

"It's a tax increase, which isn't consistent with the Republican program," Kavanagh said. And he said there is no link between registering a vehicle and funding the parks system.

He also pointed out that HCR2040 is contingent on voter approval in November. Under the terms of the Arizona Constitution, that would place the proceeds off limits to legislators, even if the levy generates more than was needed.

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 figures in the effort to corral votes for HB2060.

It bars lawmakers from altering anything approved by voters unless the change "furthers the purpose of such measure." Even then, it requires a three-fourths vote of each chamber.

Chabin said diverting dollars meant to purchase open space to operate the parks system does not fit within that exception. Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Gilbert, disagreed, saying that keeping parks open provides open space.

But the legal question is, for the moment, moot because Nichols has been unable to line up the necessary 45 votes.

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