A House panel voted Thursday to require that all vehicle owners pay more to keep open state parks and rest areas.
HCR2040 would add a $12 surcharge to the annual vehicle registration fee for all noncommercial vehicles. In exchange, anyone in a car or truck with an Arizona license plate would be able to enter any state park for free.
The measure, if approved by voters in November, also would make all the cash raised legally off-limits to lawmakers. That language was included in the wake of a series of raids by legislators on money raised by the parks system from entry fees.
It was those raids that decimated the agency's budget and already has resulted in the closure of two parks. Five more will close March 29, with six more set to be shut June 3.
Nothing in HCR2040 will prevent that from happening, as the fee could not be imposed unless and until voters approve.
But Rep. Russ Jones, R-Yuma, said there could be some interim funding if lawmakers approve HB2060, which would borrow $40 million over the next two years from a voter-established fund to purchase open space.
The fate of that measure, though, is uncertain as some Democrats have objected. And because the bill diverts voter-approved funds, it requires a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate.
That leaves this plan.
As approved by the Committee on Natural Resource and Rural Affairs, 75 percent of the money from the fee would go directly to a "sustainable parks fund.'' The cash, which Jones estimated could be upwards of $20 million a year, would go not only to staffing the parks and doing routine maintenance but also financing major improvements.
The balance of the cash would go to the Department of Transportation to set up the fee system. But Jones said he expects there will be enough money left over, especially after the upfront costs, for ADOT to be able to reopen some of the rural rest areas it closed because of lack of funds to maintain them.
As Jones envisions it, each $12 fee paid would be entered into a centralized computer system along with the license plate number of the vehicle. When someone comes to a park, a check of the computer would determine if the fee were paid on that vehicle and, if so, admission would be free for everyone.
The parks department could charge extra for tours or overnight camping.
Jay Ziemann, the agency's deputy director, said that system makes sense because it excludes commercial vehicles. "A Best Buy van probably isn't going to be showing up at a state park,'' he said.
But Rep. Jerry Weiers, R-Glendale, said there's a flaw in that system, too.
He said many people have multiple vehicles, and not just for commuting. These include motor homes and historic vehicles.
Weiers questioned why someone should have to pay a $12 fee for each vehicle when the chances are they will be taking just one of them to a park.
Jones conceded the point. He promised to have the measure altered when it reaches the House floor, where it goes next, to require the fee on just one vehicle for each household.
He said that means the ADOT computer system will have to be programmed so that a family which paid the fee on one of their cars gets free admission no matter which vehicle they drive to the park.
Weiers said he's still not sold on the idea of forcing all Arizona motorists to pay more for parks that many will not use.
"People are having a difficult time just keeping their homes,'' he said. This plan, Weiers said, puts "one more fee on top of their car when they couldn't afford to go to the park if they wanted to.''
But Jones said the flat fee for the entire year actually will help some people in financial trouble, even if they stay close to home. He said that with two state parks in his community, the plan will provide "affordable recreation'' for those on a budget.