Republicans in Legislature send Hobbs transportation tax plan for Maricopa County; governor to veto

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Republican lawmakers on Tuesday sent Gov. Katie Hobbs a plan to ask voters to extend a sales tax for transportation known as Proposition 400 laden with partisan priorities, like axing a light-rail expansion to the state Capitol and preempting bans on gasoline-burning vehicles. The Democratic governor immediately pledged to veto it. “From day one, I promised I would be laser-focused on growing our economy and bringing high-paying jobs to our state for Arizona workers,” Hobbs said in a statement. “Republican leadership’s partisan bill does neither of those things, and will be vetoed when it reaches my desk.”Start the day smarter. Get all the news you need in your inbox each morning. Hobbs called on lawmakers to vote on her compromise bill that is backed by the Maricopa Association of Governments, or MAG, the area’s regional planning agency and a chief proponent of continuing Proposition 400. That measure would get bipartisan support, Hobbs said, and she called on GOP leaders to “stop playing political partisan games” and “stop holding our state’s economic potential hostage.”

© Megan Mendoza/The Republic
Gov. Katie Hobbs speaks to the press during a weekly news conference at the state Capitol on June 1, 2023, in Phoenix.

With lawmakers on Tuesday wrapping up the bulk of their policymaking work for the year, the governor’s veto will leave in jeopardy a tax that supporters say is crucial to the economy of metro Phoenix. Opponents to Hobbs’ plan objected to spending billions to expand light rail through the countywide tax, as the system serves just three Maricopa County cities. Proposition 400 was first approved by Maricopa County voters in 1985, levying a half-cent sales tax to fund freeways, major roads and public transit. It expires at the end of 2025, and going through the Legislature to put the matter on the November 2024 ballot was proponents’ preferred route to continue the tax. Unlike Arizona’s other 14 counties, Maricopa County needs the Legislature’s approval to put the question to its voters. Though the Republican-majority Legislature last year passed a bipartisan bill extending the tax, which was ultimately vetoed by the Republican governor citing high inflation, the election of more farther-right lawmakers to the Legislature in November raised uncertainty about whether history could repeat itself this year. Negotiations between Hobbs’ office, House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Glendale, and Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, about how to extend the tax sputtered and ultimately stalled, with the leaders exchanging public barbs in recent days accusing the other side of holding up an agreement and being unwilling to compromise. A Hail Mary meeting between Toma, Petersen and Hobbs’ new chief of staff, former Democratic lawmaker Chad Campbell, on Monday morning failed to result in any agreement. So Republicans pressed forward with a partisan plan that they sent to Hobbs about 8 p.m. Tuesday, without winning a single Democratic vote in support. The bill passed the House of Representatives with a 31-26 vote with three members not voting, and passed with a party-line vote in the Senate. Hobbs then quickly announced her veto. Sticking points on both sides of the political divide Toma said the governor was unwilling to concede to a GOP request to ax a plan to extend the light rail to the state Capitol just west of downtown Phoenix. That phase of the expansion was approved by voters in 2004, but Toma said the proximity of the light rail to the Capitol was “basically to have your face rubbed in this every time you show up.” He called on the governor to sign the GOP’s version, Senate Bill 1246, which lawmakers like Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, called the best option Hobbs would get. “I think she should sign it and that we should be done,” Toma said. “But if she chooses to veto it, then she has to come up with a solution that can get my caucus on board. And quite frankly, I don’t see how that happens given where they are, and given some of the things that they’ve chosen to stick to.” The Maricopa Association of Governments opposed the GOP plan that wound its way to Hobbs’ desk, saying it and the governor had compromised as much as they could. The GOP version of the bill would risk falling out of compliance with federal air quality standards for transportation systems, as well as inhibit the county from getting federal matching funds for transit projects, MAG Executive Director Ed Zuercher said. Zuercher said Republican lawmakers who make up the Legislature’s Freedom Caucus were shifting goalposts in their asks, and ultimately their bill was a political move to attempt to make the governor look bad should she veto the bad plan. Last-minute asks that were included in the now-dead GOP bill include raising the speed limit on portions of Interstate 17 to 65 miles per hour, a provision of the bill that several lawmakers said would also apply to State Route 51. Another addition was the prohibition on municipalities and counties from taking any action to restrict the sale and use of combustion engines. One piece of the plan that complicated its path forward with the Governor’s Office was asking Maricopa County residents to vote twice on extending the tax. The two-question approach would ask voters to approve using the vast majority of the tax revenue to fund freeways, arterial streets and public transit like buses, but not light rail. A second question would ask whether the remainder of the half-cent tax should go to support existing light rail. Hobbs’ compromise allowed 40% of the money collected to go to freeways, 22% for main city roads and 38% for transit. The GOP bill allocated 53.5% to freeways, 18.5% to main city roads called arterials and intersections, and 28% to public transit.  House debate gets heated The bill’s introduction in the House launched a rapid-fire question-and-answer period between Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, and Toma. Though the main details — such as the two-vote plan — were already known, Salman criticized that they weren’t made public sooner. She and other Democrats also objected to GOP efforts to stall light-rail expansion near the Capitol, which was previously approved by voters. “How will that play out when the voters clearly said they want the light rail to certain places, but you’re saying you don’t want it to go to certain places?” she said. “If the voters of a particular municipality want the light rail to extend to a certain place, then they should have to pay for it by themselves,” Toma answered, calling the light-rail loop around the Capitol a “stupid” idea. The debate continued among lawmakers as they explained their votes. Republicans framed the debate as stopping a light-rail system they see as a waste of taxpayer dollars, while Democrats portrayed the failure to move forward with a more robust plan as an economic disaster in the making that would hurt low-income people and rural areas the most. Democratic Rep. Lorena Austin, D-Mesa, countered Republican concerns, saying downtown Mesa was “booming” with new businesses because of light rail there and asked Republicans to consider people who want to get to work but don’t have cars. “Step into the shoes of some of our constituents and then decide how to proceed,” she said. Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, and leader of the Freedom Caucus, wouldn’t go into details about what his caucus wanted in the bill. He and Petersen charged that the governor wasn’t involved enough in negotiations, and said the GOP bill gave voters a chance to weigh in on the transit plan. Hoffman met with representatives of the anti-light rail and highly political Arizona Free Enterprise Club, which helps fund far-right-wing candidates, several times during the day. He swatted aside any idea that he was doing the club’s bidding, saying it had been an “advocate for taxpayers and commuters” and he was just trying to make their views known. The Freedom Caucus released a statement soon after the Senate’s passage of the bill, calling it a “major victory.” “Senate and House Republicans showed that bold conservative leadership produces smart, comprehensive public policy that best serves the interests of the constituents who elected us,” Hoffman said in the statement. He called on the governor to sign the “smart pro-commuter, pro-taxpayer plan.”

© Michael Chow/The Republic
Minority Leader Rep. Andrés Cano speaks in favor of clean air at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on March 20, 2023. Organizers were calling for stronger state protections from air pollution and particulate matter.

Work could wrap up at the Capitol in July Lawmakers do not plan to return to the Capitol until July 31, when a skeleton crew is expected to formally end the session. Though it is possible the lawmakers could return and consider another version of Proposition 400, they have spent the last two days in the House of Representatives under the assumption this week would be their last of substantive work. The traditional farewells that close each session made an appearance on Tuesday. House Democratic Leader Andrés Cano, who is resigning his seat to attend a master’s program at Harvard Kennedy School, gave his emotional farewell to his fellow Democrats on Tuesday, saying it would be the last time they met as a caucus and “it has been an honor to be your Democratic leader.” Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger. Reach reporter Ray Stern at or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern. This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Republicans in Legislature send Hobbs transportation tax plan for Maricopa County; governor to veto

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