July 3, 2008

Groups battle over land proposition

Measure would detract from
sales benefiting state schools

by Lesley Wright
The Arizona Republic

Arizona state trust lands map.
[Click image for detail.]

A coalition of educators and conservationists submitted petitions Wednesday, calling for an initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot that would preserve more than 570,000 acres of the Arizona's most ecologically sensitive lands.

The "Our Land Our Schools" proposition would ask voters to change the Arizona Constitution, making it easier to protect Arizona's 9.2 million acres of state trust land.

Sale and lease of the trust land helps fund education and state agencies.

Phoenix, Scottsdale, Flagstaff and 57 other communities across Arizona would immediately expand their desert and mountain preserves, and the initiative would allow communities to buy thousands more acres without competing with developers.

"We need to get this done," said Pat Graham, state director of the Nature Conservancy. "It's too important to the state of Arizona."

The coalition gave the Secretary of State petitions with more than 350,000 signatures, well over the 230,047 certified signatures needed to make the ballot.

Defeated two years ago

A similar measure was put to voters in 2006, but narrowly lost.

Unlike two years ago, the Legislature did not put a competing referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot. And unlike two years ago, the state's largest homebuilding organization has pledged not to oppose it.

Still, the initiative continues to draw strong opposition. Critics say that the Arizona State Land Department should continue to sell or lease trust land - granted to Arizona at statehood in 1912 - only to the highest bidder.

Supporters argue that education funding would not suffer under the changes, since the price of developable land next to preserves skyrockets, and the state should profit as much or more.

Voter education urged

"This is not an issue understood by a lot of people," Graham said. "It requires more outreach."

Still, he and other advocates said that this measure has the best chance ever. It is less complex than the 2006 proposition, and has attracted supporters that range from Gov. Janet Napolitano to the Sierra Club.

More important is one group not opposing the proposition - the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.

The homebuilders helped defeat prior efforts to preserve trust lands.

But the lobby agreed to remain neutral this time in exchange for some key changes to a major transportation initiative that also appears headed to the Nov. 4 ballot.

Opposition to changes

The Arizona School Boards Association, which represents school-district governing boards, voted this weekend to oppose the initiative, as it did the 2006 ballot question. Members are worried about losing education funds, said Tracey Benson, the association's spokesman.

"They didn't want to take any risks with this funding stream when funding is tight and getting tighter," Benson said.

The Arizona Cattlemen's Association, another foe of the 2006 initiative, also could campaign against this one.

But the Arizona Education Association, which represents the state's teachers, is a leading supporter of the initiative.

Besides increasing the value of land surrounding conservation areas, the proposal would give the Land Department more flexibility for planning and managing development and allow for greater income, said John Wright, the teacher group's president.

"Every aspect of this initiative benefits the classroom," Wright said.