Hobbs negotiating with GOP lawmakers to try to ask voters to extend transportation tax

light rail, sales tax, transportation, Hobbs

Republicans who hold the majority in the Arizona Legislature are working to strike a final deal with Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs and leaders of cities, counties and tribes in metro Phoenix over an extension of a transportation tax that has funded massive expansions of the region's freeway and roads system, bus routes and the light rail over nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Paul Davenport)

Hobbs negotiating with GOP lawmakers to try to ask voters to extend transportation tax

Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs is directly negotiating with Republican lawmakers who control the Arizona Legislature to try to craft a deal to ask Maricopa County voters to extend a half-cent sales tax that for nearly 40 years has paid for new freeways, bus routes and light rail transportation projects.

And whether the efforts succeed will have implications for the rest of the state.

The bid to put Proposition 400 on the ballot has an uphill fight despite unanimous support for an updated plan from the 27 mayors, three tribes and two counties who sit on the Maricopa Association of Governments, the regional planning organization that oversees the transportation spending.

That’s because powerful conservative groups like the Arizona Free Enterprise Club strongly oppose the plan submitted by the group known as MAG. A large number of Republican lawmakers have joined them, voicing opposition to not just the idea of financing public transportation but also provisions to improve air quality. And they have refused to approve it without major revisions.

Their major beef is with the amount of money that pays for public transit, including buses and light rail.

If the tax extension fails, either because the Legislature refuses to endorse a local election to extend it or a revamped plan crafted by lawmakers and signed by Hobbs is rejected by voters, it could upend new highway construction statewide. That’s because Maricopa County, home to nearly 2/3 of the state’s residents, would suddenly be without its dedicated transportation funding stream for its share of projects.

Potentially more significant, that means the county, whose residents have largely self-funded massive freeway expansion projects, paid for a regional bus system and built miles of new light rail over the past 40 years, now would suddenly be competing with the rest of the state for federal funding.

“If you’re Kingman, Arizona, or you’re the mayor of Yuma or you’re the mayor of Flagstaff, you don’t want Maricopa County competing with you for federal transportation dollars,” said Kenn Weise, the mayor of Avondale and the chair of MAG.

The Legislature is involved because of a 1999 law that requires it and the governor to give their OK before Maricopa County can put a local transportation sales tax on the ballot. No other county faces similar roadblocks.

Lawmakers passed MAG’s plan last year, but it was vetoed by former Gov. Doug Ducey, who complained its longer 25-year length made it a tax increase. Two previous tax plans lasted 20 years.

He also criticized what he called flowery ballot language, said a planned special election would have low turnout, inflation made it a bad time for a tax measure and said it failed to take into account new federal infrastructure money.

A more conservative Legislature this year means backers of the tax extension vote must overcome strong opposition to get the plan to the desk of Gov. Katie Hobbs. And Republican lawmakers, including Senate President Warren Petersen, don’t trust the planning group.

“MAG is completely unaccountable,” the Gilbert lawmaker said in an interview last month.

“Yeah, you’ve got mayors that have some oversight, but not really,” he said. “These mayors are overwhelmed busy.”

Weise called that “a bunch of crap.”

“MAG has been running transportation for 40 years and incredibly successfully,” he said in an interview on Wednesday.

“And that’s an insult to mayors when he says that MAG is a big bureaucracy and basically the mayors don’t know what’s going on and they delegate,” Weiss said. “That is absolutely not true.”

MAG’s plan would use 40.3% of its funding for mass transit, primarily bus service.

Four percent would go to maintaining light rail. But, acknowledging opposition, none of that cash could be used to expand the system, currently at 28 miles, though another approximately 10 miles already is under construction or at least funded by the current levy.

Instead, plans to complete the envisioned 50-mile system by 2030 would instead have to rely on federal cash dedicated to mass transit and separate city funding. And that doesn’t include another extension being studied into northeast Phoenix planned for 2040.

The rest of the money would go to freeways, major roads and regional programs, including initiatives to address the Phoenix region’s poor air quality. Freeways alone would get 40%.

If renewed when it expires at the end of 2025, the tax is expected to raise nearly $20 billion in 2020 dollars over its life, according to MAG.

The Legislature has advanced two competing proposals. Both cut the new tax to 20 years.

One, backed by the Free Enterprise Club and GOP lawmakers David Farnsworth of Mesa and David Cook of Globe, would cut the transit spending to 26% while boosting freeway spending to 52% of the total and allocating 22% to other major road and regional projects.

Free Enterprise Club lobbyist Amy Yentes testified that Farnsworth’s original Senate bill gave just 5% to transit, “and we think that’s generous” based on ridership data.

Another plan, backed by Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, would give 40% to freeways, 21% to other roads and regional projects and allocate 39% to transit. His bill also includes unrelated issues that have failed to advance on their own: zoning changes designed to boost the housing supply and barring cities or counties from prohibiting “pocket shelters,” homeless shelters that have fewer than 32 residents run by nonprofit or religious groups.

Both of those proposals await action in the House.

Petersen, meanwhile, has his own plan which has not been formally introduced. It would give at least 47.5% to freeway projects, 19% to local roads and to address regional issues including air quality and 33.5% to transit.

The sweetener for MAG in that plan is it would fund all the roadways included in its longer 25-year plan, including a new east-west freeway in the southern part of metro Phoenix running from Interstate 17 west to Avondale known as SR30. The freeway is designed to provide an alternate to Interstate 10, which can become a parking lot during rush hours.

All three legislative plans add major strings to the spending, limiting MAG’s ability to choose new programs or move projects at will or to adopt and fund emerging technologies.

Hobbs, who would have to sign whatever emerges, declined to give details on the negotiations but said she hoped they would bear fruit.

“I see this as a pretty important piece of legislation for the region and the state as well and we are working to get it across the finish line,” the governor told reporters at a press availability. And she said “the sticking points are pretty well known.”

But Hobbs has made it clear she wants something on her desk. In a tweet last week, she pointed to an Arizona Republic editorial that said conservative GOP lawmakers were holding an extension of the tax that has boosted the region’s economy hostage because they did not like public transit.

“It’s time for the Legislature to stop playing games,” Hobbs wrote. “Maricopa County voters deserve the chance to make their voices heard.”

Petersen responded by calling her tweet “bizarre,” and noting it came just as lawmakers were sitting down to negotiate with Hobbs.

“Our plan has more roads, less congestion and is a better value to the taxpayer,” Petersen said.

Weise said the GOP lawmakers he’s met with, including Queen Creek Sen. Jake Hoffman, who Petersen tapped as a negotiator, just don’t get how important transit is. He said Hoffman and others scoffed when he noted that metro Phoenix light rail and buses counted 32 million boardings last year.

“And Hoffman says to me ‘well those aren’t real people,’ Weise said. “And I said, ‘Well, they’re not puppies and they’re not kittens and they’re not ghosts.’ ”

What they are, Weise said, are people like single moms with two jobs and no car who need to get to work and get their kids to school.

“I will tell you that happens every day in Avondale and Buckeye. It happens in Tempe,” Weise said. “It happens all across the valley.”

And Weise said when he asked what happens with these people, “there wasn’t an answer.”

Yentes, of the Free Enterprise Club, said transit accounts for just 1% of the region’s passenger miles and that does not justify spending more on those programs.

Weise said he quit his full-time job in December to focus on his mayor post and especially on getting the extension of Proposition 400 on the ballot.

“The Legislature is not voting for a sales tax,” he said.

“They’re voting to send this to the people,” Wesise said. “Just pass the bill, give it to the governor and … if it’s a horrible plan, the people don’t vote for it.”