For Arizona’s Future

by Don Rodriguez

Two measures backed by the Arizona Technology Council hold the promise of investing in a better tomorrow for the research community while promoting economic development.

At press time, the Arizona Senate had voted to support a measure that, if passed, ultimately would protect the dark sky corridor that takes hold after the sun sets. Headed to the House of Representatives was a version of SB1114 that allows construction of up to 35 illuminated billboards within 60 miles of Laughlin, Nev. That means the signs could appear in an area spanning south of Lake Havasu City to east of Kingman and north toward Hoover Dam.

For years, professional stargazers have flocked to their telescopes in such places as Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff and Mount Graham in eastern Arizona for celestial research under the cloak of darkness. That investment of time also has resulted in an economic return of nearly $250 million annually for the state, according to a study released nearly a decade ago by the group Astronomy, Planetary and Space Science. That amount likely has increased since then.

This cash flow is threatened, however, by illuminated billboards that are the source of what is called “sky glow.” In a large, concentrated cluster of signs, the sky glow can cause astronomers to call it a night for their research. This has led some members of the astronomy community to label the phenomenon “light pollution.”

In its second try at the Legislature, the bill was introduced by Sens. Sonny Borrelli and Steve Smith. The Council has been working with astronomers from The University of Arizona and staff from Lamar Advertising to come to a compromise that would protect Arizona’s observatories while still allowing Lamar Advertising to reach its goal of economic development in Mohave County.

The bill passed out of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Public Safety with a cap of 35 — down from 50 — signs in the Mohave Valley area along with limiting the illumination to a level at least a third less than that allowed in other areas.

There is a sticking point, but this is where new technology could be the savior for astronomers in the future. Under adopted amendments to the measure, operators any future signs would need to make reasonable efforts to use modern technology so there is no collective increase of sky glow in Arizona as new billboards come online. Also, components of existing outdoor advertising could be replaced with advanced technology where commercially reasonable in a bid to decrease the glow.

As that bill made its way through the Senate, the House also renewed past discussions on another topic: angel investments that can be the lifeblood of a technology community.

While all states surrounding Arizona and even Mexico have created state-supported early-stage funds, many firms seeking capital in this critical stage of business development leave our state because needed funding is scarce. Some help has come through Arizona’s Angel Investment Tax Credit program, considered a success since going into effect in 2006 followed by its original sunset date being extended by the Legislature from the original 2016 until 2021.

The down side is that by summer 2015, the program depleted the $20 million in credits authorized when the program was created, leading to a dramatic drop in angel investing in Arizona. Under SB1212 introduced by Sen. Karen Fann, lawmakers were asked to allow the Arizona Commerce Authority to authorize an additional $10 million — $2.5 million a year for the next four years — in tax credits to qualified investors and small businesses. Rep. Jeff Weninger introduced in the House an identical measure, HB2335.

Behind the scenes, the Council and its members have worked to convince lawmakers to see the light and support investment in Arizona’s future.

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