June 11, 2004
Proponents of a reform package for Arizona’s state trust lands urged the Legislature this week to act swiftly so voters can consider possible constitutional amendments in November.
A special committee of state lawmakers struggled this week during two public hearings to understand a series of proposed reforms for the management of 9.2 million acres of land held in trust for education funding.
An informal coalition that crafted the proposal said the changes would help the state sell property for higher prices, raising more money for education, while setting aside up to 675,000 acres for conservation.
Some lawmakers have questioned whether the Legislature can meet in special session and reach an agreement by July 1. Missing that date would mean necessary state constitutional amendments couldn’t be considered by voters until November 2006.
While acknowledging the proposal’s complexity, coalition members said the reforms need to be considered this year because previous attempts to protect some state trust lands have been blocked.
"In urban areas, we are out of time," testified Carla (her legal name), the executive director of the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust. "Some of the lands on the map will not be around in 2006."
The reform package represents three years of delicate negotiations between some conservation groups, education associations, developers and ranchers that many officials call unprecedented.
"The vetting they have done with their constituents is — to be blunt — excruciating," Carla said. "I think what you have here is a meeting of the minds and it is a once-in-alifetime opportunity."
But a growing number of environmental groups outside the coalition are warning lawmakers that immediate action on a poorly understood proposal could backfire.
Jack Simon, lobbyist for the Arizona Wildlife Federation, said the state would have to auction some trust lands for development at substantially higher prices to make up for property that would be set aside or sold at lower prices for conservation.
The coalition has no studies, though, to support its claims that would happen, Simon said.
"Education is going to take a financial hit off of this, period," Simon said. "They will lose billions of dollars off of this proposal."
State Land Commissioner Mark Winkleman testified the package would work because of the new resources offered to his agency. For the first time, the State Land Department would keep a percentage of land sales for operations.
Winkleman said that would allow the agency to hire more planners and engineers to better prepare additional land for future sales to help fetch higher prices.
Still, Rep. Chuck Gray, RMesa, said the Legislature could just provide more money to the State Land Department without adopting the reform package.
The legislative committee is scheduled to hold additional hearings Monday and Wednesday.