Ward: State GOP backs tax hike for education

Ben Giles//April 23, 2019//

Ward: State GOP backs tax hike for education

Ben Giles//April 23, 2019//

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Kelli Ward at a campaign rally in August 2018. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Kelli Ward at a campaign rally in August 2018. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

The state Republican Party has staked out a rare policy position by backing a tax hike – as long as GOP lawmakers don’t have to do it alone.

AZGOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward announced Monday evening her support for legislation that would increase a voter-approved 0.6-cent sales tax earmarked for education to a full penny.

This new tax hike, like the original tax, would also need to be approved by voters on the 2020 ballot.

As is, the tax raises more than $700 million a year for education. Raising the levy to a full penny would increase that amount to roughly $1.1 billion annually, dollars that would flow to K-12 public schools, community colleges and state universities under a proposal backed by a handful of GOP state senators and representatives.

It’s been a decade since the state Republican Party supported raising taxes, and even then, it was only a temporary plan. In 2009, AZGOP Chairman Randy Pullen stuck his neck out for then-Gov. Jan Brewer and supported her push for a short-term, 1-cent sales tax to help fill budget gaps during the Great Recession. Brewer succeeded only after tremendous pushback from Republican lawmakers, and it took roughly a year for her to drag a proposal to refer the tax to the ballot through the Legislature.

Ward said she’s already getting blow back from lawmakers and the public alike.

“A lot of legislators and just people in general have contacted me and they’re concerned that I’m supporting a tax increase. Well, I’m supporting sending a possible tax increase to the ballot to let the voters decide how they want to spend their money,” Ward said. “And if they want to invest more in education, this is an opportunity for them to do so.”

It’s a technicality that Ward urged Republican lawmakers to embrace.

Doing so would allow Republicans to take the lead on boosting funding for education, but still claim that they’ve never voted to raise taxes – instead, they simply voted to let the voters raise taxes on themselves.

“This is not the Legislature raising taxes,” said Sen. Sylvia Allen, one of the architects of the sales tax hike proposal. “This is putting on the ballot to give our citizens the opportunity to determine if they want to be able to put more into education.”

Not all Republican lawmakers feel the same way.

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, was billed as one of several lawmakers who’ll join Ward, school officials and business leaders at a press conference on April 24 in support of the sales tax hike. But Townsend told the Arizona Capitol Times she can’t support a plan to raise taxes on Arizonans, or even ask the question.

Townsend cited the outcry over a new fee, charged when Arizonans renew their vehicle registration, that lawmakers approved in 2018. Townsend, like many Republicans, viewed the fee as nothing more than a tax that circumvented laws for raising state revenues.

“I don’t know if my district is ready for another increase, even if it’s just to refer it to the ballot for a vote,” Townsend said.

At least some GOP lawmakers must have similar reservations, because the plan Ward supports has gone untouched for more than a month.

Senators last took a preliminary vote on SCR1001, the resolution to refer the tax hike to the ballot, in early March. Allen, R-Snowflake, said she’s “just a few votes away” in the Senate, but said she’ll have to convince her Republican colleagues to get on board, since Senate Democrats oppose the plan.

An identical House resolution, HCR2024, hasn’t been voted on since clearing the House Education Committee in February. House Democrats unanimously oppose raising the sales tax, according to House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma. Without Democratic support, all 31 Republican votes are needed to approve the ballot referral, including Townsend’s.

There’s also the matter of Gov. Doug Ducey, who spent two campaigns for governor running on his opposition to any new taxes or tax hikes.

That hasn’t changed.

“The governor has been clear. He does not support raising taxes,” Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said.

In response, Ward leaned into the technicality that it’s voters, not lawmakers, who have the final say.

“The nice thing about this referral to the ballot is the governor won’t have to raise taxes,” Ward said. “This puts it on the voters.”