To help balance the state's budget, the Arizona Legislature has asked voters to overturn an initiative-established fund that provides matching money for the acquisition of open space.
Proposition 301 on the November ballot would discontinue the state's conservation land acquisition program, and liquidate a $124 million Land Conservation Fund established to purchase land and development rights.
Opponents of the measure say the plan would take away what little money the state allocates to protect threatened lands from urban encroachment. Proponents say the money would better serve residents if it goes to help fill the state's budget deficit.
"It's actually pretty simple," said Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association. "We're in the bottom of a long recession that has taken away nearly 40 percent of Arizona's tax revenue."
Since December 2007, general fund tax revenue has fallen by nearly $2 billion, according to a budget projection the Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee released in September.
General fund revenue reached a peak level of $9.62 billion in 2007. The committee estimates the fund would top out the current budget year at $7.63 billion and leave a deficit of at least $1.4 billion.
"It is impossible to exaggerate or overstate the size of the budget problems we have," McCarthy said.
He wants voters to approve Prop 301 so the money can go toward core services the state provides in education, low-income healthcare and public safety.
"At the same time we're cutting healthcare for low-income Arizonans and cutting education, we have this huge pot of money sitting there," McCarthy said.
Opponents of the proposition doubt the overall fiscal impact of transferring the $124 million Land Conservation Fund to the general fund, and say there's no guarantee the money would get spent in the needed areas.
"I find it hard to believe the Legislature is going to fund those core services when they've been slashing them," said Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. "They're not specific, we don't know what they're going to do with it."
The conservation fund provides a dollar-for-dollar match to local governments to purchase Arizona State Trust lands. The state constitution mandates that money from the sale of trust lands go into an education fund.
Campbell said liquidating the account would not only hinder conservation efforts, but ultimately would hurt public education. In addition, Campbell said sweeping the conservation fund stands in direct conflict with voter demands.
"Open space is important to voters and it's (the Land Conservation Fund) the only money available to protect open space by the state," Campbell said.
McCarthy said critics of Prop 301 were dishonest to say the money would not be spent on core services.
"You have to be pretty comfortable lying to people to say that," McCarthy said. He added the state's general fund, where legislators want the fund swept into, supports specific programs including education, public safety and healthcare.
McCarthy argued that keeping the fund intact would cause the legislature to make more cuts to education and other core services.
The Land Conservation Fund grew out the Growing Smarter Act and was passed as a ballot initiative in 1998 under the name Proposition 303. Its key provision was to establish an annual contribution of $20 million from the state's general fund. Those annual payments were scheduled to expire at the end of the 2011 fiscal year. The fund balance, the $124 million legislators want for the general fund, would be used for land acquisitions after state contributions end.
If votes agree to the fund sweep, a conservation effort across the state could be impacted. Phoenix, Scottsdale and Coconino County all have pending applications for matching funds.
Pima County has indicated it intends to apply for funding to purchase lands in the Northwest. County leaders intended to use Land Conservation Fund cash to purchase some 6,000 acres of State Trust Land north of Oro Valley.
Oro Valley officials have worked with the state land department for more than two years on an annexation agreement for the area, the so-called Arroyo Grande. A large section of the 14-square mile desert expanse has been identified as wildlife corridor. A Pima County purchase of the ground, in addition to a proposed series of animal crossing structures over and under Oracle Road, was envisioned as a way to connect the Santa Catalina and Tortolita mountains and minimize road kill.
McCarthy recognizes that the fund sweep would change things for some around the state, but said the state's budget situation mandates such actions.
"We think as an organization it's appropriate to ask Arizonans if the terms of the agreement have changed," McCarthy said. "At the end of the day it all comes down to basic math and basic priorities."
Today's backers opposed ballot proposition in '98
Some of the same activists fighting to preserve the state's $124 million Land Conservation Fund opposed the proposition that initiated the fund in 1998.
Arizona voters approved Proposition 303, which implemented the fund that matches local governments dollar-for-dollar on purchases of state trust land or development rights therein. State government allocates $20 million per year to the fund.
Environmental activists like Carolyn Campbell with the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection wrote arguments in 1998 urging voters to vote against the ballot measure.
"The money was the only good thing about Prop 303," Campbell said last week.
Opposition from the environmental community stemmed from what Campbell called a "poison pill" slipped in the ballot question.
At the time, environmental groups backed an initiative called "The Citizens Growth Management Act" that sought to limit sprawl and create development boundaries around urban areas.
Prop 303 contained sections that would have eliminated the Land Conservation Fund and the annual state contributions if the Citizens Growth Management Act or similar initiatives passed. It also specifically prohibited many of the tenets of the growth management act.
The Citizens Growth Management Act never fully got off the ground, failing to get enough signatures to make the 1998 ballot. Prop 303, however, was passed.
Proposition 301 on the Nov. 2 ballot would eliminate the annual $20 million contribution to the Land Conservation Fund established in 1998 and sweep the $124 million balance into the general fund, where the Legislature could spend the money however it chooses.
Supporters of 301 say it's needed to help balance the state's suffering budget.