Arizona GOP lawmakers pass transit-tax plan Hobbs says she’ll veto

Howard Fischer

PHOENIX — Republican lawmakers approved their own transit funding plan for Maricopa County late Tuesday, all but daring Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs to veto it.She wasted no time in saying that’s exactly what she intends to do.In a statement released moments after the final vote, Hobbs said she wants lawmakers to come back and vote on what she called “a compromise that is supported by a bipartisan majority in both chambers, business and labor leaders, and Maricopa County cities.” She said GOP leaders, in ignoring that and adopting their own plan, were “playing partisan games.”Only thing is, lawmakers are not due to come back to the Capitol until July 31. And despite Hobbs’ claim her plan has bipartisan support, every single Republican in both the House and the Senate instead voted for the one she does not want.

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A veto sets up a game of political chicken, with the fate of the county transit tax, and whether it goes to voters for an extension, hanging in the balance.”This is going to be the only bill that passes this session” on extension of the tax, said Rep. David Livingston, a Peoria Republican. “This is the only bill that voters will have a chance to vote on.”If Hobbs vetoes it, Maricopa County residents will not have a chance to extend the levy another 20 years, he said.If that’s the case, the current tax will self-destruct at the end of 2025. All the funds it would raise over the next two decades — an estimated $20 billion — would not be collected and all the projects they would fund would not happen.Hobbs is undeterred, saying there are enough legislative votes available for the plan she negotiated with the Maricopa Association of Governments. She said GOP leaders should put it up for a vote “and stop holding our state’s economic potential hostage.”GOP plan requires separate vote on light railThere are major differences in the plans.The GOP proposal seeks to cut the sales tax levy a bit, from half a cent to 0.495 cents.Another key difference: The plan Republicans approved would require two votes by Maricopa County voters. The first, for a 0.43-cent levy, would go to freeways and road projects if approved at the ballot box. Any money for new light rail or trolley lines, or to construct some sort of commuter rail, would be dependent on voter approval of a separate 0.065-cent levy. If voters didn’t go along with that second ballot question, that would end construction of new rail lines unless cities used their own funds.House Speaker Ben Toma said the Republican plan gives Hobbs and the Maricopa Association of Governments, which is made up of local elected officials, what they want: the chance to extend the sales tax until 2045.He said it’s about more than MAG. “This is an opportunity for us to actually move something forward that gives voters a real choice in what these projects are going to be,” Toma said.”And the fact that some seem to be concerned, shall we say, about the fact that it’s split into two questions is very telling to me,” the Peoria Republican said. “They might be a little bit afraid, perhaps, that light rail isn’t going to pass while the other bucket would.”The question is whether voters, who approved the last tax extension in 2005, including funding for light rail, are still as enthusiastic about it.Light rail: Destructive or a boon?    Republican Rep. Barbara Parker said the experience in her home community of Mesa, where the light rail now runs, suggests to her that residents have seen enough.”The light rail not only destroyed our historic Main Street and downtown Mesa, but it destroyed lifelong businesses of families and generations of business that had been there for years and years,” she said.Nor does she believe it is being used to any significant extent by commuters. “We are funding a loser,” Parker said. “In our town, it’s a moving urinal and that is it.”But Democrat Rep. Lorena Austin, also representing Mesa, painted a different picture.”The light rail has been absolutely transformative,” Austin said. “If you’ve been to downtown Mesa, even in just the past year, you would see that all the retails are actually booming. We can’t get businesses in there fast enough. And it has everything to do with public transportation.”Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said the GOP plan does not mean there will never be a further extension of light rail if voters don’t OK its separate funding. What it does mean in that case, he said, is that light rail won’t be paid for by everyone who buys items subject to sales taxes throughout Maricopa County.”If cities want to do light rail, you know what?” Petersen said. “They can find ways to fund it and do it.”The antipathy toward light rail shows up in another provision. The legislation would bar construction of a planned extension from downtown Phoenix to the state Capitol — an extension already paid for with funds from the current levy.Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, derided it as a useless loop.But that description doesn’t reflect the actual plan. The idea is to eventually split the single line into two, one that runs north-south from the old Metrocenter Mall in Phoenix into an extension now under construction into South Phoenix, and an east-west line that already starts in Mesa but would go to the Capitol.Billions for freeway constructionSplitting out future funds for light rail is only part of the difference from the governor’s plan.Hobbs wants 40% of the total $20 billion — assuming she prevails and there would be a single vote on a half-cent extension — for freeway construction. Rough math would put that at $8 billion.By contrast, the GOP plan approved Tuesday would set aside 53.5% of the 0.43-cent levy in the first of the two questions for that purpose. That means roughly $9.2 billion for constructing and widening freeways.Hobbs also wanted 40% of the total levy for transit, again, the same $8 billion. But even if voters were to approve both ballot questions sought by Republicans, including for light rail, the total would be only about $6.6 billion — or just $4.8 billion if voters approve only the first question but not the second.Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, told colleagues that short-changing mass transit — and light rail in particular — is not a good move.”Light rail is the most efficient way to move people,” especially in areas of high density, she said. “And if we continue to have the idea that everything must be a single driver in a car on a road, we will just get to the point of having to pave every speck.”But Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Scottsdale, said Arizona doesn’t have the density of a place like New York, where he is from, to make mass transit and rail a meaningful way to get people out of their cars.Sets interstate speed limit There’s something else in the Republican legislation that is unrelated to paying for transit projects, which also would have an effect beyond Maricopa residents.Toma got language added to set the minimum speed on all interstate highways in Maricopa, the state’s most populous county, to 65 miles an hour. That would affect a nearly 15-mile stretch of Interstate 17 that runs through Phoenix where state highway engineers have posted 55 mph signs.The House speaker said the decision by Republican lawmakers to override the speed limit decision is justified.”It makes highway speeds consistent across the county and keeps up with the reality of highway driving,” he said.
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Howard Fischer is a veteran journalist who has been reporting since 1970 and covering state politics and the Legislature since 1982. Follow him on Twitter at @azcapmedia or email 

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