No one denies that Arizona has enormous budget problems. Since the halcyon days of 2007, state general fund revenues have fallen a staggering $3.6 billion, more than one-third. Arizona has a structural budget deficit of $1.7 billion. Big, painful cuts have taken place; more are ahead.
To free up $124 million, the Legislature wants voters to pass Proposition 301 on Nov. 2. The proposition would take that $124 million of state-appropriated money from a voter-approved land conservation fund, and place it in the general fund to help meet the needs of education, health care for low-income people, and other pressing demands.
We empathize with the dilemma.
That said, Proposition 301 should be defeated. The Legislature needs to find other ways to pay for services.
In 1998, the people of Arizona said they wanted to take $20 million a year in tax revenues, and place it in a fund that would be used to match local government commitments to preserve open spaces. They passed something called the Growing Smarter Act.
Say what you will about the initiative process — and everyone seems to have an opinion — but there is a near-sanctity associated with the majority that must be respected. If the voters say Nov. 2 they don't want to protect that money any longer, fine. The people are always right.
But Arizona is already about to save money on land conservation. With Growing Smarter, the Legislature made a $20 million annual commitment of funds for 11 years. The final appropriation is scheduled this year, in fiscal 2010-'11. Hey! Moving forward, lawmakers are about to get $20 million a year they didn't have before. Please, legislators, use that money wisely.
We would suggest the protection of open spaces within Arizona's wealth of state trust lands is a wise use of public resources. Even in times of short-term economic struggle, the long-term, legacy view must be that Arizona has rare lands upon which building should not occur. Among them are lands in the Northwest, such as wildlife corridors on the Arroyo Grande parcel north of Oro Valley, and the saguaro-studded flanks of the Tortolitas above Marana. Future generations would shake their heads if we allow continued sprawl, if we allow irreplaceable public resources to be lost forever.
That's not a no-growth view. Growth must occur, and in fact is going to happen. But it's got to be done right. We have previously encouraged the annexation of Arroyo Grande into Oro Valley, for example, and urged responsible development on that beautiful desert parcel that meets community, economic, environmental and financial objectives. It can be done.
Open-space backers often point out that our spectacular mountains represent the oceanfront views found on America's coastline. If the Tortolitas, the Santa Catalinas, the Tucsons, the McDowells, the San Franciscos … if our mountain views are protected, demand for housing increases, property values are enhanced … and more tax revenue flows to state coffers. It makes sense.
The education community says that, when money from the land conservation fund is matched by local governments to purchase or protect state trust lands, the revenue flows into the trust, benefiting education. That's fine, but that's not the essential argument. Those arguments are, rather, that the voters have already identified the protection of open space as a public interest; that Arizona's annual $20 million commitment to the land conservation fund is ending anyway; and that current Arizonans owe to our successors a livable state that respects this spectacular natural setting.
Vote no on Prop 301.