Thursday, June 12, 2008

Decades Theme Park to face final legislative vote

With a controversial authorization bill poised for a final legislative vote, Arizona lawmakers are being assured that the state would not be liable for bonds sold to help finance a rock-and-roll theme park if the project goes belly up.

The bill would require the project's backers to raise $100 million and secure financial guarantees for the $750 million bond issue by a special district. The bonds would be repaid from taxes on sales in the park, which would be exempt from property taxes and be in Eloy in Pinal County.

While the state authorization would permit the project's unidentified backers to save on financing costs, lobbyists and legislative supporters promote the project as a jobs generator.

Opponents criticize the proposed state involvement in a private venture and question whether any default on project bonds would cause fiscal trouble for the state down the road.

However, the Legislature's law office said in a memo to the bill's sponsor that its wording "makes it very clear" that the state would not be liable for repayment of special-district revenue bonds.

The memo also cited Arizona court rulings that found no state liability for revenue bonds not linked to the state's general treasury.

Signed by a Legislative Council staff attorney, the memo was dated by May 14 but not widely disseminated before Tuesday, when the bill's sponsor cited it during discussion of the bill during a Senate Republican caucus.

The Associated Press later obtained a copy of the memo, which serves as legal advice to the Legislature.

Sen. Barbara Leff, R-Paradise Valley, cited media reports of questions being raised about potential financial responsibility for a state-authorized Wild West theme park that would be in Williams in Coconino County.

Other senators assured her that the pending bill for the Eloy project is tightly written, with requirements placed on the backers and disclaimers for the state.

"I don't see where the state is at risk at all," said Sen. Tom O'Halleran, R-Sedona.

Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, denounced the legislation as "fascism" and later said he might conduct a filibuster to block it. "I'm not down here to commingle government" and private business, he said. "If they can't stand on their own legs, it's got no business coming to government."

Already approved by the House and Senate, the authorization bill (Senate Bill 1450) now awaits a final Senate vote, with passage sending the bill to Gov. Janet Napolitano.

"It's on its way," the backers' chief lobbyist, Kevin DeMenna, said of the bill.

The Senate's initial formal vote on the project was relatively close at 17-11 but DeMenna said some lawmakers have changed positions since then.