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House GOP caucus cold to gas tax proposal

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A proposal to double the state’s gasoline tax is in trouble.

On Thursday, several Republican lawmakers told Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, they would not support his proposal for a three-step increase in the levy that eventually would bring it to 36 cents a gallon. Their comments came even after House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, urged support, telling them that the state’s road construction and maintenance needs exceed the amount of money the 18-cent-a-gallon tax now raises.

Campbell likely has the support of the 29 Democrats in the 60-member chamber. That, combined with his own vote and that of Bowers and Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, gets him a majority.

But a state constitutional provision requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate for any increase in taxes. And Campbell conceded he doesn’t have that now – and may not be able to get it.

Noel Campbell

Noel Campbell

Bowers said one option would be for Campbell to scale back the proposal, perhaps with a smaller increase spread over a longer number of years. And, if nothing else, the speaker said Campbell should at least pursue putting an automatic inflation index into the current 18-cent levy to ensure that its buying power does not erode further

There is another option: Take the issue directly to voters. Several GOP lawmakers said they might be willing to support that.

And there’s a procedural advantage in going that route. It takes only a simple majority of the House and Senate to refer any plan to the ballot.

But Bowers told Capitol Media Services there’s a flip side to that.

Most of the voters live in Maricopa County where residents already have approved a sales tax which has resulted in new dollars for both construction of an extensive urban freeway system and additional dollars for road maintenance.

And that, Bowers said, may result in voters in Maricopa County deciding that the state really doesn’t need additional road revenues, effectively overriding the votes from everywhere else.

“If it doesn’t bite you, you don’t feel it,” he said.

Political Will

Central to the issue is what Campbell contends – and many of his colleagues agree — is the poor condition of some state roads. He said doubling the levy and imposing new fees on hybrid and electric vehicles which also use the roads could raise an additional $600 million a year.

But convincing Republicans to actually vote for the increase has proven more difficult – and more frustrating for Campbell.

“What we lack in this body is political will,” he told fellow Republicans during a caucus on Thursday.

“What did we come down here for, to just keep getting elected?” Campbell said. “Is that all we do is elected and do nothing?”

That drew a sharp reaction from Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale.

“I disagree with the sponsor on this bill,” he said. “But that does not make me somehow only interested in my own interest, not that of the public.”

Campbell apologized. But he said that does not undermine the need for the additional dollars.

Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, said the state is the victim of its own decision decades ago to set a flat gas tax, with no inflation indexing. He said if there had been an index the current levy would be 35 cents a gallon.

“This has been 30 years in the making,” Thorpe said of the issue.

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, did not dispute that. But his issue is the methodology.

“I would just suggest to you that you send it to the voters,” he said.

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That’s also the belief of Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake.

“It is the public’s money,” he said. “They should have a vote in this.”

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, also thinks voters should get the last word. But he’s not convinced that most Arizonans actually would go along.

“When I talk to my constituents, yes, roads and transportation comes up as an important issue,” Finchem said.

“But it’s like No. 5 on the list,” he said. “I think it’s wholly appropriate for us to take that to the ballot and say, ‘OK, just how important is that to you?”’

And Finchem suggested that the measure might gather more legislative support if it had a smaller price tag.

Even going the route of putting it on the ballot, however, will draw GOP opposition.

“I don’t think we should be doing anything at all here,” said House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert.

Campbell was somewhat bemused that he has support from some Republican colleagues to put the issue on the ballot.

He tried to go that route in the past and have the issue referred to the 2018 ballot. But he could not round up the votes for that.

“You know what? It’s kind of like any way you want to go they want to block you and say, ‘That’s not the right way, we should go the other way, ‘ ” he told Capitol Media Services after the caucus. “They find a million reasons why they don’t do it.”

Still, Campbell said if he can’t get the 40 votes in the House he may ask Bowers to provide a way for him to try to refer the issue to the 2020 ballot.

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