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Hobbs signs legislation to let voters decide whether to extend transportation tax

Proposition 400, Maricopa County, light rail

The Valley Metro Light Rail stops at the Van Buren/Central Avenue station in downtown Phoenix near Arizona State University and the Westward Ho. Gov. Katie Hobbs signed legislation on Aug. 1, 2023 to allow Maricopa County voters to decide on extending a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, setting the stage for the fight to come at the ballot box. (Photo courtesy of Valley Metro)

Hobbs signs legislation to let voters decide whether to extend transportation tax

Gov. Katie Hobbs signed legislation Tuesday to allow Maricopa County voters to decide on extending a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, setting the stage for the fight to come at the ballot box.

In a prepared statement, the governor said the levy “will secure our economic future and give every Arizonan an opportunity to succeed in our thriving economy.” She also crowed about the fact that the measure gained bipartisan approval, attracting more than half the Republican lawmakers and all Democrats but one.

But all the key provision of the legislation does is authorize the board of supervisors to call a special election, presumably in 2024, to give voters the last word on extending the levy 20 years, to 2045. So now the fight moves from the halls of the Legislature to the streets.

Hobbs, Prop 400, legislation, sales tax, transportation tax
Gov. Katie Hobbs

Proponents have characterized the measure as simply giving voters the opportunity to keep in place the half-cent tax first approved 1985. A provision in state law requires Maricopa County — and only Maricopa County — to get such legislative permission.

In fact, state lawmakers approved a new vote just last year, only to have it vetoed by then-Gov. Doug Ducey, who said he was concerned about the timing of a tax extension — even one that required voter approval — because of economic conditions.

That sent the issue back to lawmakers this year. And now, with a more fiscally conservative Legislature, they sent Hobbs a bill to extend the levy — but only if there were two separate votes: one for roads and the other for mass transit. Hobbs rejected that plan.

Negotiations resulted in the bill she signed Tuesday, one with a single vote — but some significant curbs on how the money could be used. That includes capping mass transit at 37% of the estimated $20 billion the tax will raise over 20 years and a specific bar against using any of that cash to extend the light rail system.

But Scot Mussi, president and executive director of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, said that was still a “setback.”

Mussi and his organization contend that, even with the changes, it still allows “radical plans like road diets,” essentially changes in street construction or layout to slow traffic — and from the perspective of foes, a program designed to force people out of their personal vehicles.

But the big issue has been how much goes to projects other than new or improved roads, what Mussi called “failed transit projects that seemingly only enrich consultants and special interests.”

And now the aim is to convince voters to reject the plan.

That comes despite a poll done by OH Predictive Insights, which said that 56% of those questioned support a renewed half-cent tax, with 17% opposed and 26% undecided. Pollster Mike Noble said even among Republicans there was a plurality, with 47% in favor and 30% against.

And in a separate question, Noble said he found that 54% believe the current light rail system should be expanded, with only 6% saying there should be no light rail.

Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, who voted against allowing this plan to go to voters, sniffed at the results.

“And the reason I doubt the accuracy of the polling is, if it were true that spending (nearly) 40% of this new tax on public transportation funding was something the voters wanted, nobody would ever have fought bifurcation,” he said. That refers to the desire by conservatives — and what was in the original bill vetoed by Hobbs — to have two votes, one for roads and one for mass transit.

In vetoing that plan, the governor accused backers of “playing politics” and “holding Arizona’s economy hostage.”

Kolodin, however, said he believes voters are willing to listen to arguments on why this new plan is unacceptable.

“The messaging has to be we’re growing at a rapid pace, we’ve got to have our transportation funding dedicated to the roads that will allow us not to turn into L.A.,” he said. “We can’t have 40% of it siphoned off for public transit that services less than a percent of the population.”

And Kolodin said if voters reject this plan, it will send a message to lawmakers to approve a different formula.

But not all Republican agree, with even Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, issuing a press release calling what lawmakers approved the “most conservative Prop 400 plan in Arizona history.”

He cited the elimination of funding from the levy for light rail expansion and the 63% earmarked for roads and freeways. And Petersen said it also ties the hands of the Maricopa Association of Governments, the agency made up of local community leaders that decides and funds the projects.

“No longer can dollars be shifted unilaterally after taxpayers have approved the measure,” he said.

Kolodin rejected the idea that Los Angeles is not an example he wants to cite.

For decades the city and surrounding communities poured billions into building more and more freeways based on the belief that would ease congestion.

That didn’t happen. And it is only more recently that the area has invested in rail and other mass transit.
But Kolodin said that funding hasn’t helped.

“I don’t know if you’ve driven in L.A. recently, but they’re congested to the gills,” he said. “It’s clear that it doesn’t solve the problem.”

The lone Democrat to oppose the plan was Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales of Tucson. But unlike the Republicans who voted “no,” her objection was the fact that the measure bans funding for new light rail and includes a provision barring the state from imposing limits like California on what percentage of vehicles sold could be powered with fossil fuels.