Arizona legislators eye ways to keep parks open

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PHOENIX (AP) -- Arizona legislators are considering a ballot measure to slap a surcharge on auto registration renewals as one way to keep state parks open in the face of the state's budget troubles.

Other pending legislation would divert money from a constitutionally protected land conservation fund and encourage arrangements to have local governments take over parks that might close.

Lawmakers and parks officials also are discussing privatization proposals.

"It's amazing what poverty will do," said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills.

Since July, the Legislature has cut 61 percent of the parks system's $19.3 million budget.

The latest budget cuts, approved in December as part of a package to reduce a midyear revenue shortfall, prompted the State Parks Board to approve a series of 13 more park closures, leaving two-thirds of the state's sites shuttered.

The first of the new closures, on Monday, involved Homolovi Ruins near Winslow and Lyman Lake near St. Johns. More closures will follow in March and June, but parks officials hope to keep open some parks on the closure list by making arrangements for local community backing.

One bill pending in the Legislature would require the Parks Board to provide Lake Havasu City with a lease for Lake Havasu State Park, a popular fishing and boating facility on the Colorado River and one of the park system's biggest moneymakers.

The most far-reaching legislative proposal on parks funding is still at the starting gate, with a hearing scheduled Thursday afternoon by a House committee.

That measure would ask voters in November to approve a $9 or $12 annual charge to noncommercial vehicle registration renewals to provide long-term funding for parks and highway rest areas. The state's budget troubles have closed many rest areas as well.

The surcharge would entitle Arizonans to free entry to state parks, though there still would be extra fees for camping and other activities.

A gubernatorial task force on funding recommended a surcharge, which would be similar to one used by Montana for parks funding.

A legislative proposal for short-term funding received preliminary approval from the House last week but has since stalled. Minority Democrats object to the measure, which would temporarily divert $40 million from a land conservation fund approved under a 2000 ballot measure. Changing voter-approved laws requires a three-quarters vote in both legislative chambers.

On another front, legislators on Wednesday heard a privatization pitch from Recreation Resource Management. The Phoenix-based company operates publicly owned campgrounds and marinas in 11 states.

Company President Warren Meyer offered to take over operations of some state parks for a year so they could remain open.

"As a citizen I want to see those parks stay open, and this is my contribution," Meyer said.

State Parks Director Renee Bahl said private concessions aren't a "silver bullet," partly because the system depends on some popular parks to produce revenue to support less popular parks. Land title issues and intergovernmental arrangements also complicate things, she said.

However, "I'd say nothing is off the table and any partnership that we can find is better than a closed park," Bahl said.

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On the Net:

Arizona Legislature: http://www.azleg.gov

Arizona State Parks: http://www.pr.state.az.us

Recreation Resource Management: http://camprrm.com

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