The state park system needs an infusion of outside cash, possibly from a surcharge on vehicle license taxes, to keep it from collapsing, according to a new report.
The study, done for the Arizona Parks Foundation by the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University, concludes that the revenues collected from users is insufficient to properly maintain and operate the parks, much less acquire new properties. And the supplement the system used to receive in state tax dollars from the Legislature has all but dried up as lawmakers divert the dollars for other priorities.
So the report suggests a host of other ways to raise the $40 million a year that Parks Director Renee Bahl said is probably necessary not just to keep the gates open at the existing parks, but to also catch up on overdue maintenance and put some money aside for future purchases.
Bill Scalzo, a member of the Parks Board, said one of the more promising concepts would be to hike vehicle registration fees.
He acknowledged the proposal might generate some opposition. But Scalzo said the key is how the idea is presented.
"It is not just a fee," he said.
"It is your admission to state parks," Scalzo continued. "Instead of paying the entry fee of $6 to $8 to $10, or buying an annual pass that could cost up to $200, every citizen of Arizona, with Arizona license plate on a non-commercial vehicle, could enter a state park for maybe $10, $15 a year."
Residents of other states, however, would still have to pay a fee.
Also being discussed is some sort of "resource" tax, whether it be on mining or on energy production. That would include not just coal or nuclear plants but even on wind and solar electricity.
"We take resources out of Arizona on a regular basis," Scalzo said. He said it's only fair for those who benefit from the state's resources to put something back.
Other options suggested in the report include:
a dedicated statewide property tax;
adding a tenth of a cent to the state sales tax, generating $44 million;
higher off-road vehicle registration fees;
development fees on all new residential construction.
But any plan for a new tax or surcharge faces a number of obstacles, many of them political.
It starts with the fact that there are no state parks in Maricopa County, where the lion's share of the taxpayers - and the state lawmakers who represent them - live. Scalzo, however, said that doesn't mean they don't use the parks, saying he believes that 40 percent of the homes in northern Arizona are owned by residents of the state's big two metropolitan areas.
"They go north all the time," he said, choosing not to spend their summers where the temperature routinely tops the triple-digit figure.
"If you go to Show Low on a weekend and go to Fool Hollow (state park), it's packed," Scalzo said. "And most of those people are coming from all over this state."
But there could be a bigger problem.
The Arizona Constitution contains a provision which requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate for any measure that increases state revenues. And Grady Gammage Jr., a senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute, said he believes that requirement likely applies to the kind of levies being suggested here.
Gammage acknowledged the problem of getting that kind of margin, even for a measure that might be seen as saving the parks system. But he said there is an alternative: A simple majority of lawmakers could instead refer the question to the ballot.
Bill Meek, president of the state park foundation, a private group that provides financial, lobbying and public relations support for the system, said there might be an advantage to having voters weigh in on the issue.
Meek noted that lawmakers, in their efforts to balance the state budget, have raided various special funds. These include some dollars the parks department had set aside for grants and other needs.
Once a tax or a fund has been created and approved by voters, though, it is constitutionally off limits to legislative raids.
Another suggestion in the study is for the state to form partnerships with local communities, with their taxpayers helping pick up some of the costs. Gammage said these cities should be willing to share the burden, as many of them, particularly in rural areas, "derived significant benefits" from the tourism the parks create.
One option that was not considered is making the system self-sufficient by hiking fees for entering the parks and for things like overnight camping permits. Gammage said that's not realistic.
"The theory sounds nice," he said. "But the truth is, these are public assets and public parks."
Bahl said the parks board is increasing fees.
She said, though, all of those fees generate only slightly more than $8 million a year; the actual cost of operating all the parks on a full-time basis is closer to $26 million.
And that, she said, does not include catching up with an estimated $200 million in capital needs, with some historical buildings and even rest rooms falling apart.
Similarly, Gammage said the Morrison Institute did not look at the possibility of privatizing the parks system.
He said only three parks - Kartchner Caverns, Slide Rock and Lake Havasu - actually make any sort of real profit and would be attractive to an investor. The rest, he said, lose money.
Meek said he expects the recommendations in the study will become part of a final report being prepared by a commission that Gov. Jan Brewer formed to find ways to make the park system "sustainable." Ultimately, he said, it will take her support - and that of lawmakers who would be asked to approve any major changes - to alter the funding system.