The latest plan to address the state’s budget deficit would sweep a fund that helps law enforcement patrol Arizona’s waterways, something that two local officials say would endanger boaters.
“This would increase accidents, deaths, injuries and be disastrous for the state,” said La Paz County Sheriff’s Lt. Alan Nelson, who patrols the Colorado River.
Under the plan, Arizona State Parks would be authorized to use all money in the Law Enforcement Boating and Safety Fund to operate state parks. The agency plans to close 13 parks and keep nine open due to budget cuts.
According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the fund currently contains $2 million and is used to employ 26 boating officers throughout the state.
Sheriff’s Capt. Eben Bratcher said losing Yuma County’s two officers assigned to keep watch on boaters would leave his department reacting to rather than preventing reckless behavior.
“The Colorado River is very popular and gets pretty rowdy,” he said. “If we are not able to fund officers to patrol it, it’s going to make it extremely dangerous out there.”
Ed Huntsman, boating education program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said there are already too few boating officers on patrol.
“If we could get more of them out there to interact with the folks who could use some help in understanding the proper ways of boating, it would be a lot safer out on the water,” he said.
In 2008, Arizona ranked seventh nationally in its number of boating accidents.
Rep. Warde V. Nichols, a Gilbert Republican, said local officials have every right to be concerned about cuts to boating enforcement and other programs. But he said people need to understand the challenges lawmakers face in addressing the budget.
“I can’t point to a silver bullet and say, ‘Hey, this is what we are trying to do,'” he said. “We are just trying to think outside of the box and figure out a way to keep everything together.”
Boating safety also was the focus of one bill that lawmakers shot down and another that a senator said she decided not to introduce because of the budget.
Rep. Russell L. Jones, a Yuma Republican, failed in an attempt to establish a $250 fine for boating offenses in hopes of encouraging offenders to change their ways. On Monday, the full House rejected H2678.
And Sen. Linda Gray, a Phoenix Republican, said she decided against introducing legislation that would require boaters who receive moving violations to attend a safety course. She had pledged to work for the change and had engaged Game and Fish on the topic.
“It was a great idea, but the entire purpose would have been defeated because the funds collected would have become swept money,” she said.