Behind-the-scenes efforts are afoot to try to restore funding to the Arizona Geological Survey after a new state law stripped the survey of its budget for the current fiscal year and consolidated the agency into much smaller quarters within the University of Arizona at Tucson.
Arizona state legislators told Eos that they hope funding can be restored, either through emergency money in fiscal year (FY) 2017, which began on 1 July, or through specific funding to support the survey in the next fiscal year’s state budget.
In the meantime, the university, which did not receive separate funding for the survey from the state government, is providing the survey this fiscal year with the equivalent of its FY 2016 state appropriation of $941,000.
Lee Allison, Arizona state geologist and director of the survey, said the survey “has been trying to work with the university to find the best arrangement for us”— financially, organizationally, and structurally.
Already, the budget legislation, which took effect 1 July, has prompted a loss of office space, survey staff, services, and net revenue, with more losses envisioned, said Allison, who serves as a member of the Eos editorial advisory board.
In June, the survey moved into offices about one fourth the size of its former space. The agency’s staff, which numbered 27 in January, has shrunk to 18 because of resignations and retirements largely related to the budget cuts, according to Allison. Five other staff members received preliminary layoff notices or have been advised that their funding will run out within a few months, he added.
“Unintended Consequences” or “Win-Win”?
State Senator Gail Griffin, a Republican who represents District 25 in southern Arizona, told Eos that she is working to include a line item in next year’s budget for the survey “to put back the funding that was stripped this past year.” Griffin said she hopes to discuss the issue with Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a fellow Republican, this week.
Griffin, who also is a real estate broker, said the survey provides valuable services, including mapping Earth fissures—giant tension cracks that open in subsiding land. “It is crucial that we have the manpower and the expertise to identify those areas that will either allow development to occur or prohibit it,” she said.
State Rep. Bob Thorpe, a Republican who represents District 6 in central Arizona, also told Eos that he hopes that funding for the survey can be reinstated. “I’m not sure if we can get some emergency funding to them immediately or, if nothing else, plan on this for the next fiscal year,” Thorpe said, noting that he plans to be in touch with the governor’s office about the issue.
Calling the survey’s work “stellar,” Thorpe added that if the state is trying to save taxpayer dollars and reduce government, cutting the survey’s budget “is not low-hanging fruit that I would go after.”
Republicans control both houses of the Arizona legislature. The bill included cuts to the survey in a small section of the broad-ranging budget legislation. The legislation passed in voting along party lines.
Both Griffin and Thorpe voted for the bill, but Thorpe said he thinks that the survey section wasn’t vetted very well. “It kind of blindsided us,” he said.
“I believe there are unintended consequences with this move, and I would like the situation to be reevaluated,” said Griffin.
Dan Scarpinato, spokesperson for Governor Ducey, took a different view. Consolidating the survey into the university “is a good policy change and will be a win-win for the survey and for the University of Arizona,” he told Eos. “We are very interested in consolidations that can result in government working better, and this is one [consolidation] that was identified as an area that could really be a success.”
With funding unclear for the survey beyond the current fiscal year, Allison said that “the expectation is that a year from now we have to be 100% soft-money funded.” Unless the situation changes, this means that the survey will need to find 100% of its funding from grants, contracts, and fees for services, he explained.
The survey has received $5.36 million from the state since 2011, and it raised an additional $35.8 million in the same 5-year period through external research grants and contracts, according to the survey. However, the portion of that external funding expected to cover indirect costs (i.e., administrative overhead) now will go mostly to the university to support the university’s operations.
In recent years, Allison said, funding for indirect costs raised by the survey has greatly subsidized services provided by the survey to the state. He added that the net loss of survey revenue under the new arrangement for FY 2017 would be at least $400,000—nearly one third of the survey’s budget for state services—because of the consolidation and transfer of the survey.
Mining Industry Concern
Arizona is the “number one mining state in nation,” not counting coal, Allison said. Economic geology in the state focuses mostly on mineral resources that can be used for economic or industrial purposes, he noted. But recent staff departures, in addition to diminishing the agency’s extension service and other programs, have completely eliminated the survey’s economic geology program.
Sydney Hay, president of the Arizona Mining and Industry Get Our Support (AMIGOS) trade association, told Eos that she was “deeply disappointed” with the changes to the survey and said she hopes funding can be restored to what she called a world-renowned geological survey. “It didn’t make any sense to me that [the survey] would be an agency that would merit being downsized and put into the university rather than standing alone,” she said.
—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer