The Senate has rejected a proposal to help avert the closure of state parks by allowing people to make voluntary contributions for their operation and maintenance.
The bill, H2599, failed April 22, in a vote of 14-14.
The measure would have allowed those who are applying for a renewal of their vehicle registration to donate $10, which would have gone into a Sustainable State Parks Fund.
“I think there’s a question of whether that bill really does anything,” said Sen. Barbara Leff, a Republican from Paradise Valley who supported the measure.
Senators also amended the legislation to allow the Department of Transportation, whose motor vehicle departments would collect the donations, to retain up to 10 percent of those donations—capped at $100,000 — for administrative purposes.
“The question really is whether there’s any money that goes to the parks if you have to spend $100,000 upfront,” Leff said.
The state park system has been reeling from budget cuts and fund sweeps, forcing the agency to outline a plan to shut down most of its parks by the middle of this year.
A few weeks ago, however, the parks board entered into an agreement with local governments to try and keep additional some of the parks operating.
Several ideas have cropped up, including allowing people to donate to a fund for park operations.
Leff is sponsoring a bill, S1349, which would allow the State Parks Board to enter into agreements with private and public entities or Indian tribes to operate state parks.
The bill awaits a final vote in the House.
“My bill is going to be the solution to the state parks issue,” Leff said.
But Sandy Bahr, lobbyist for the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, still blames the Legislature, for significantly reducing funding for the parks and sweeping their special funds.
Since private firms would only want those parks that are making money – several don’t – adding the legislation may help one or two parks but the not the whole park system, Bahr said.
“We have to figure out a long term solution, and frankly the message that the Legislature sent this year and last year is they just don’t like state parks,” Bahr said. “It seems pretty clear that they are trying to destroy the state park system and Senator Leff’s bill is not going to change that.”
Told about Bahr’s remarks, Leff, clarified his earlier statement.
“I didn’t say my bill was the solution to the problem of what we did,” Leff said. “I said my bill was the solution to the emergency at the moment until this can be reversed.”
On April 21, lawmakers rejected an amendment by Senate Assistant Minority Leader Rebecca Rios that would mandate a fee, instead of a voluntary donation, on those who renew their vehicle registration. The fee would then be deposited into a “Sustainable State Parks and Roads Funds.”
Rios’ amendment would have left it to the Arizona State Parks Board to determine the amount of the fee.
In return, parks would be prohibited from charging a day use fee on registered Arizona vehicles.
Additionally, a sub-account would be created to help operate and maintain highway rest areas, many of which have also been shut down because of budget cuts.
“I think we need to be serious in the way that we approach this,” Rios said.
“Although there will be many people that would voluntarily give money, I doubt it is going to be enough to reopen 21 state parks,” she said.
In rejecting her proposal, some Republicans said it looks like another tax increase, even couched as a fee-raising authority being given to an agency.
Sen. John Huppenthal, a Republican from Chandler, also said simply throwing money at the problem stifles creativity.
“What we are seeing in this current environment is we are starting to see the seeds of creativity,” he said, referring to the various proposals on the table to try to save parks, including partnering with cities.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Gray said what the Rios proposal is really asking legislators to allow the parks board to raise fees on vehicle registration.
“That is deferring from us our authority to (an) unelected, accountable board and they have no limit on how much they can raise those fees,” he said.
Rios said raising a fee on vehicle registration wasn’t what she wanted either..
“The route I wanted along with my colleagues was to vote ‘no’ on the cuts to the Arizona State Parks’ budget,” she said, adding that lawmakers were warned that reducing the agency’s budget would have a significant negative effect on the state’s tourism industry.
Leah Landrum Taylor
Debbie McCune Davis