Citizens of Arizona own 13 percent of the land in this state. It’s land that the federal government set aside at statehood in 1912 for the long-term benefit of citizens.
We’ve been parsimonious with that land. Today, 95 years after it was set aside, the state still owns most of it, having sold off just 15 percent of what is known as state trust land.
In those 95 years, Arizona has changed extensively. The state has a population about 25 times bigger, which has led to some of the most beautiful parts of Arizona being despoiled by development.
And regulations governing use and disposition of state trust land are ill-suited to pressures of the 21st century.
Gov. Janet Napolitano has decided to throw her weight behind major reform of trust land regulations. And that may be what is needed to accomplish something that has been languishing for years.
Trust land is managed by the state to produce income, mostly for schools, by selling or leasing property to the highest bidders. Today, Arizona has about 9.2 million acres in trust.
That’s an amazing resource. Other states were given large tracts of land at statehood, and most have disposed of much of it. Arizona is in the enviable position of being able to manage and direct growth by how it manages this land.
The challenge is finding the right balance among competing interests: development, preservation and generating money for schools.
Change in trust land management would require voter approval because it would amend the state Constitution.
There were two such propositions on the November 2006 general election ballot that would have changed trust land. Both failed.
The better of the two measures would have set aside 694,000 acres for conservation.
Between now and the start of the legislative session in January, Napolitano hopes to build consensus on reforms that will allow land to be set aside for preservation.
But a Napolitano aide said she would not resurrect past proposals to set aside land without compensation to the trust fund – a major sticking point with education advocates.
The plan may involve allowing local governments to buy state land at appraised value without having to go through an auction at which prices could soar.
Other changes also are needed. The state needs a way to work with developers so taxpayers gain a share of soaring land prices that come with development pressures.
Good for Napolitano in trying to build bipartisan support for trust land changes.
With that kind of backing from lawmakers, a referendum on the November 2008 ballot would stand a far better chance of success.