Friday, December 21, 2007

Legislative cost-cutting threatens state's parks (op-ed)

[Source: Arizona Republic] -- The Arizona state parks system is crumbling, and the Arizona Legislature is threatening to apply a sledgehammer to the problem. For those who are not parks-savvy, the 30 state park sites preserve some of the state's scenic gems, like Red Rock State Park in Sedona, Catalina State Park near Tucson and the world-famous Kartchner Caverns near Benson. State parks also protect historic treasures like Homolovi Ruins near Winslow and the Yuma Territorial Prison. And they include a bevy of wildly popular water-oriented parks at lakes and rivers across the state. State parks welcomed 2.3 million visitors last year. In exchange for meager state funding, the parks generate about $126 million annually in tourist revenue for counties and municipalities that are neighbors to state parks, according to a 2002 study by Northern Arizona University. The Legislature appropriates only $8.2 million to the Parks Department from the state's general fund. The rest of the department's operating budget and all its money for park upkeep and improvements come from funds made up of user fees, various grants and a voter-approved share of the state lottery.

That might be marginally acceptable, but the Legislature won't let those funds alone. During the past state budget crisis, in 2002-03, the Legislature swept more than $40 million out of those funds, leaving the parks system with almost no resources for capital spending. The parks have never recovered, and now the Legislature is proposing to do it again. Legislative budgeters have proposed a list of parks-fund sweeps totaling $38.3 million in the current fiscal year to help the state out of its projected $1 billion budget deficit. Much of that money is actually designated by law to be used as grants to counties and municipalities for parks and open space, but the net effect of the sweeps is that state parks would again be left with no capital money. Clearly, there is a problem of fairness here. The parks system is being asked to contribute to fiscal rescue far out of proportion to its tiny $8.2 million impact on the state budget. But the real issue is that this scheme will leave the parks with no resources to stop the steady deterioration of the system. The Parks Department has identified nearly $44 million in urgent capital needs encompassing 27 of the 30 state parks. [Note: To read the full article, click here.]