Legislation would give Arizona land swap power to preserve land around military bases - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Legislation would give Arizona land swap power to preserve land around military bases

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Posted: Friday, December 2, 2011 10:54 am | Updated: 3:12 pm, Fri Dec 2, 2011.

Saying Arizona can't afford to lose military jobs, a veteran state lawmaker is making what could be a last-ditch effort to convince voters to give the state the power to trade away lands - if the move helps preserve bases.

Sen. John Nelson, R-Litchfield Park, said Washington is looking at ways to pare military spending. He said one thing likely to be considered is whether it makes sense to maintain or expand an air base or if encroachment from development makes that a bad idea.

His legislation and proposed constitutional amendment would give the state the power to have land swaps if the ultimate goal is to preserve open space around military bases.

Such permission would not so much affect a direct trade with the federal government as the ability of Arizona to obtain property around bases now owned by developers and instead provide them with other parcels elsewhere.

But Nelson conceded that, without public support, the measure will go down to defeat at the polls again next November - the way it has seven times before.

At the heart of the issue is that when Arizona became a state, the federal government gave it close to 11 million of acres of land to be held in trust. The proceeds from the sale or lease of the property, or from selling timber or mineral rights, is largely earmarked for public schools.

About 9.2 million acres remain.

Only thing is, the Arizona Constitution says lands can be sold only to the highest bidder.

His proposal, SCR 1001, would create an exception for land swaps.

There have been many prior versions. Most were defeated amid concerns by conservation groups that savvy developers would find a way to take advantage of such a system, acquiring choice parcels of land, perhaps environmentally sensitive, without public oversight.

Various efforts to reassure voters have fallen short.

Even last year, when the measure was narrowed - and passed out of both the House and Senate with near-unanimous support - a skeptical public still rejected it.

Nelson said he has crafted this version in hopes it meets a different fate.

As crafted, it restricts swaps to situations designed to avoid encroachment on military installations, training ranges or testing operations.

But that's only part of it. SCR 1001 also has a detailed procedure of what has to happen before a single piece of land is exchanged.

That starts with two independent appraisals which have to show that the value of what the state is getting is at least equal to what it is giving up. There also needs to be two separate analyses which look at the related issue of the income being generated by the parcel being traded off and what would come from the new one.

Nelson's measure also requires a study about the financial impact on local governments, as once private lands belong to the state they no longer generate property tax revenues.

But the ultimate fail-safe, he said, is the fact that each and every exchange would have to be subject not only to public hearings but could be vetoed at the ballot.

Nelson also said the language has been streamlined from what failed in 2010.

"This is put together in a better fashion so that people will understand it and not go negative the minute they look at it," he said. "It's really more understandable."

Even with that, Nelson said, the proposal isn't going to sell itself.

He said prior efforts faltered at least in part because there was no organized and well-funded campaign to educate voters.

Nelson said he'd like to get interested groups involved this time but is not holding his breath that the cash will materialize. So if the Legislature approves putting the measure on the 2012 ballot, he said he will go out and organize a grassroots campaign to try to build support from the ground up.

He said that, at least on paper, it should not be a hard sell.

"They bring $20 billion in revenues to this state," he said of the military bases.

"We're now seeing the federal government starting to do cuts and we're starting to lose employees," Nelson continued. "The last thing we want to do is see the government look and Arizona and say, ‘They don't support their bases' so we can't afford to move this here or that there."

Still, Nelson said some things may be beyond his control.

He speculated that one reason the 2010 proposal went down to defeat is that it was one of seven proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. Nelson said that makes it easy for voters to get confused and overwhelmed - and to instinctively vote "no" on anything that they don't fully understand.

The measure fell short by fewer than 9,300 votes out of nearly 1.6 million cast.

It remains to be seen how many constitutional proposals will be on the 2012 ballot.

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