Once again there is a proposed ballot initiative that would change the rules for state trust land. Every time the subject comes up, which seems like every election cycle, I’m amazed at how disconnected the discussion is from the reality of what state trust land is and what the rules for it are. If you attended high school or college in Arizona, you should remember something about it from your government course. The course I took in college taught me more about state trust land than I have learned anywhere else, including in law school.
State trust land was granted to Arizona by the United States at statehood. The land was granted for the specific purpose of supporting (meaning producing money for) public schools in Arizona. Here are the main sections of the Arizona Constitution on the subject:
Article 10, Section 1. Acceptance and holding of lands by state in trust
All lands expressly transferred and confirmed to the state by the provisions of the Enabling Act approved June 20, 1910, including all lands granted to the state and all lands heretofore granted to the Territory of Arizona, and all lands otherwise acquired by the state, shall be by the state accepted and held in trust to be disposed of in whole or in part, only in manner as in the said Enabling Act and in this Constitution provided, and for the several objects specified in the respective granting and confirmatory provisions. The natural products and money proceeds of any of said lands shall be subject to the same trusts as the lands producing the same.
Article 11, Section 10. Source of revenue for maintenance of state educational institutions
The revenue for the maintenance of the respective state educational institutions shall be derived from the investment of the proceeds of the sale, and from the rental of such lands as have been set aside by the enabling act approved June 20, 1910, or other legislative enactment of the United States, for the use and benefit of the respective state educational institutions. In addition to such income the legislature shall make such appropriations, to be met by taxation, as shall insure the proper maintenance of all state educational institutions, and shall make such special appropriations as shall provide for their development and improvement.
That’s pretty much it, and it’s pretty simple. The land was granted to be “held in trust and… disposed of in whole or in part, only… for the several objects specified” in the land grant, i.e. to provide revenue for the public schools. It doesn’t matter what other beneficial use the legislature, or anyone else, thinks could be made of that land. Unless and until the Arizona Constitution is amended, state trust land has to be sold or rented “for the use and benefit of the respective state educational institutions.”
The ballot initiative that has been proposed this election cycle may not even get on the ballot, according to the latest news. According to a Capitol Media Services item published on August 15, the petitions submitted to the Secretary of State may not contain the minimum number of valid signatures, 230,047, for the initiative to qualify for the ballot.
The initiative would amend the constitution to exempt specific parcels of state trust land from the constitutional requirement. Backers of the initiative say that wouldn’t hurt the schools because creating open space on some trust land would increase the value of adjacent trust land. I’m not sure about that, but if the voters buy it, then that’s what the initiative process is all about.
The aspect of the discussion that always surprises me, though, is how many people apparently think that state trust land was meant to be preserved. It also surprises me how many people seem to think that the state can do whatever it wants with state trust land, or that it is for public use. That second notion goes along with the notion that land owned by the government is there for anyone to use, like a park. Try telling that to the MPs at Fort Huachuca the next time you decide to take a hike on the open areas within the boundaries of the Fort.
To the uninitiated, state trust land seems to be just sitting there, not doing anything, so why shouldn’t it be a park, or be put to some public use? Why should it get sold for private use? Because the Arizona Constitution and Enabling Act say so, that’s why, and because the proceeds are used for a public purpose, a purpose that the founders of Arizona thought was of primary importance, namely public education.