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Governor’s grab of cash for roads risks fight in legislature

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Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision to again take for other uses state gas tax money intended to help cities and counties build and repair roads is getting a cold reception from some in the Legislature.

The Republican governor’s budget proposal for the year starting July 1 eliminates $86.5 million in highway spending in the current year, a decision likely to spur a fight with lawmakers from both parties who have been seeking a permanent stop to shifts of cash for road work to other uses.

Legislation that would bar the practice and require gas tax money only be spent on roads has been introduced in the Senate with both Democratic and Republican sponsors.

Republican Sen. Karen Fann said Tuesday that draining the fund year after year is akin to letting a small leak go unrepaired and eventually ruining the whole roof.

“This is what’s happening to our roads,” she said. “We’re actually destroying our infrastructure by not keeping it up and maintaining it.”

Fann, Democratic Sen. Steve Farley and two other lawmakers are sponsoring Senate Bill 1090, which would require gas tax and other money in a dedicated highway fund known as HURF be spent only on roadwork.

“I think there’s going to be a fight, because that’s a bipartisan issue,” Farley said of the highway cash shift. “I’ve never seen as much passion about stopping the HURF shift between parties as I have in recent years, and I don’t think that’s changed.”

House appropriations chair Rep. Don Shooter said he’s generally supportive, with a caveat that finding about $100 million lying around isn’t that easy.

“I’ve tried to do that that over my tenure, but sometimes it’s not a perfect world,” Shooter said. “I support it all I can within the bounds of practicality.”

The pot of cash has been regularly targeted by lawmakers who use it to fill other gaps in the budget. The practice began in the early 1980s, but it rapidly escalated when the Great Recession hit in late 2007. By 2012, cities and counties and the state road fund were losing $120 million in money they were supposed to receive. The cash nominally went to fund the state highway patrol.

A deal in 2015 that would see $30 million restored in each of the coming three years only lasted one year, and each session since has seen a battle. Particularly hard hit are rural counties, whose mainly Republican representatives have been vocal about ending the shift.

Even big counties have been hit, said Ken Strobeck, executive director of the Arizona League of Cities and Towns. The league estimates that cities and towns have lost nearly $347 million since 2001.

“That’s why historically Tucson’s streets have just been in terrible condition is because of the continued HURF sweeps,” Strobeck said. “And they’ve actually passed local additional taxes to do street and maintenance.”

Small towns that can’t do local taxes essentially shut down all construction and repairs if their state cash is taken, Strobeck said.

Last year’s budget deal sent $30 million to the cities and counties and another $57 million for one-time projects like widening Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix. All that money is out of Ducey’s budget proposal this year.

“That solution that you’re talking about last year was identified as a one-time solution, not an ongoing solution,” Ducey budget Director Lorenzo Romero said at a legislative budget briefing Tuesday. “The way that we do our budgeting …. is for those one-time items to be backed out the next year. And we’ve done that, appropriately maintaining the existing funding structure.”

While appreciative of Fann’s proposal to require the state to spend road money on roads, Strobeck said the Legislature has a ready workaround.

“Unfortunately, all is takes another bill to say ‘notwithstanding that statute we’re going to take more anyway,’ ” Strobeck said. “We already have a statute that limits how much is supposed to go, and it’s overridden every year.”

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