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The Associated Press April 2, 2010, 10:19AM ET

Ariz. House approves optional fee for state parks

The Arizona House has approved a proposal to temporarily give drivers the option of donating money to keep state parks open, but lawmakers rejected an amendment pushed by parks advocates that would instead create a mandatory fee.

Supporters of the optional fee said an involuntary charge would be an unconstitutional tax increase. Opponents said a required fee is legal and would be the only way to generate enough money to fully fund the parks system.

The proposal by Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, would also provide money to reopen highway rest areas that were closed due to budget cuts.

Representatives on Thursday rejected the mandatory fee on a 20-34 vote and approved the optional charge 42-11. It now goes to the Senate.

Thirteen state parks are closed or slated for closure by June 3. A handful of others are being operated with money from cities or nonprofit organizations after the State Parks Board proposed closing them to save money.

The Legislature has cut 61 percent of the state parks budget since July. The agency was self sufficient until lawmakers swept much of the system's revenue to help balance the state budget.

"Our state parks will not survive the fiscal year unless we do something," said Rep. Steve Farley, a Tucson Democrat who supported the mandatory fee.

A measure that would ask voters whether to create the required fee passed one House committee in February but has stalled in the Appropriations Committee because the chairman, Fountain Hills Republican Rep. John Kavanagh, has refused to hear it.

"It's a tax increase, and we're already putting a billion-dollar increase on the ballot for sales tax," Kavanagh said. "That's more than enough."

Kavanagh also said a mandatory fee is bad tax policy because there's no relationship between cars and parks.

He is the sponsor of the optional fee, which would expire after three years. Drivers who make a $10 donation would get a sticker for their vehicle granting free admission to parks.

Kavanagh said it's reasonable to expect the fee to generate $4 million for parks, but Democrats said the money is a pittance compared the $30 million or more they said is needed for a robust parks system.

After it became apparent the bill would pass, several Democrats switched their votes to approve the measure. The move helped it achieve the two-thirds majority needed to take effect immediately and begin generating money during the parks' busy summer season.

Without approval of at least 40 lawmakers, the measure wouldn't take effect until 90 days after the end of the legislative session.

For the second time, the House skipped a planned vote on a separate measure that would raid a voter-approved land conservation fund to temporarily keep state parks open.

Environmentalists oppose taking the money from the conservation fund, which helps local governments buy land for open space.

Because it would modify a voter-approved law, the Arizona Constitution requires that the measure be approved by three-quarters of each legislative chamber and further the intent of the law.

Opponents have said transferring the money is illegal because it doesn't further the intent of the law approved by voters in 1998.

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