In a bid to get votes for the state budget, Republican lawmakers are picking a new legal fight with charter cities.
The state House voted 31-28 Thursday to limit the ability of cities to ask voters for a sales tax increase to just even-numbered years, and only during the regular November election.
Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, said turnout “soared” after his city went to that single election date. More to the point, he said higher turnout may keep elections from being hijacked by special interests.
“You don’t have that little group of people, of insiders, that you’re only catering to in an election any more,” Weninger said. “You’re going to your entire populace.”
Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, was more blunt about cities that hold the off-cycle elections.
“They obviously want to suppress the votes,” she said.
But Barry Aarons who lobbies for Prescott, told lawmakers the council has decided that its odd-year elections make the most sense and lawmakers should not intercede.
The reason for the late Thursday hearing is political: Legislative leaders agreed to push the measure through in an effort to “buy” votes of some lawmakers who have been opposed to the $9.8 billion state budget and a companion proposal to allow universities to borrow up to $1 billion for 25 years.
But if a 2014 Court of Appeals ruling is any indication, the legislation may be doomed from the start.
That year the three-judge panel voided a 2012 law requiring cities to have their elections only in even-numbered years. The judges said that is trumped by state constitutional provisions which allow charter cities to set their own local policies, including election dates.
Judge Michael Miller, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, acknowledged that lawmakers in enacting that statute cited various reasons for wanting cities to have their elections at the same time as federal, state, legislative, county and school board candidates are on the ballot. That includes saving local taxpayers the cost of a separate election.
But Miller said that’s not of the state’s concern.
“If only city costs are implicated, then the Arizona Constitution delegates to the city’s voters to determine whether its costs actually would decrease and, if so, whether the decrease is worth the trade-off in loss of off-cycle benefits,” he wrote.
And Miller said attorneys for Tucson, who challenged the law, and those of Phoenix that joined the case, presented arguments in favor of keeping their odd-year elections — arguments that are contrary to what Republican lawmakers claimed on Thursday in approving the measure.
“An off-cycle election allows a city to obtain the full focus of the electorate,” Miller wrote. And he said it also insulated the process from the “influence of partisan issues that are inevitably interwoven with federal, state and county elections.”
Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, predicted this new law will be challenged and meet the same fate.
Charter cities in Arizona:
Source: League of Arizona Cities and Towns