Republicans pass plan for Maricopa County transit tax extension, Hobbs promises a swift veto

By Mark Brodie
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Wednesday, June 14, 2023 - 10:23am

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Valley Metro
Rendering of light rail bridge over Interstate 17 looking south. Elevated station and parking garage visible on the west side of the freeway.

Republican lawmakers late Tuesday approved their own transit funding plan for Maricopa County, all but daring Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs to veto it.

And she wasted no time in saying that’s exactly what she intends to do.

In a statement released just moment after the final vote, Hobbs said she wants lawmakers to come back and vote on what she called “a compromise that is supported by a bipartisan majority in both chambers, business and labor leaders, and Maricopa County cities.” And the governor said GOP leaders, in ignoring that and adopting their own plan, were “playing partisan games.”

Only thing is, lawmakers are not due to come back until July 31st. And despite Hobbs’ claim that her plan has bipartisan support, every single Republican in both the House and Senate instead voted for the one she does not want.

More to the point, a veto sets up a game of political chicken, with the fate of the county transit tax hanging in the balance.

“This is going to be the only bill that passes this session” on extension of the tax,” said Rep. David Livingston. “This is the only bill that voters will have a chance to vote on.”

Put another way, the Peoria Republican said, if the governor vetoes it, Maricopa County residents will not have a chance to extend the levy another 20 years.

If that’s the case, the current tax will self-destruct at the end of 2025. And all the funds it would raise — an estimated $20 billion over the next two decades — would not be collected, and all the projects that the cash would fund will not happen.

Hobbs is undeterred, saying there are the votes for the plan she negotiated with the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG). She said GOP leaders should put it up for a vote “and stop holding our state’s economic potential hostage.”

There are major differences in the plans.

The GOP proposal seeks to cut the sales tax levy a bit, from half a cent to 0.495 cents.

More to the point, what Republicans approved actually would require two votes.

The first, for a 0.43-cent levy, would go to freeways and road projects.

But any cash for new light rail or trolley lines, or to construct some sort of commuter rail, would be dependent on approval of a separate 0.065-cent levy. And if voters don’t go along with that second ballot question, that’s the end of new rail lines unless cities want to use their own funds.

House Speaker Ben Toma said what Republicans approved gives Hobbs and MAG, made up of local elected officials, what they want: the chance to extend the sales tax until 2045.

And he said it’s about more than MAG.

“This is an opportunity for us to actually move something forward that gives voters a real choice in what these projects are going to be,” Toma said.

“And the fact that some seem to be concerned, shall we say, about the fact that it’s split into two questions is very telling to me,” he said. “They might be a little bit afraid, perhaps, that light rail isn’t going to pass while the other bucket would.”

All that goes to the question of whether voters, who approved the last tax extension in 2005 which included funding for light rail, are still as enthusiastic about it.

Republican Rep. Barbara Parker said the experience in her home community of Mesa, where the light rail now runs, suggests to her that residents have seen enough.

“The light rail not only destroyed our historic Main Street and downtown Mesa, but it destroyed lifelong businesses of families and generations of business that had been there for years and year,” she said.

Nor does she believe it is being used to any significant extent by commuters.

“We are funding a loser,” Parker said. “In our town, it’s a moving urinal and that is it.”

But Democrat Lorena Austin, also representing Mesa, painted a different picture.

“The light rail has been absolutely transformative,” she said.

“If you’ve been to downtown Mesa, even in just the past year, you would see that all the retails are actually booming,” Austin said. “We can’t get businesses in there fast enough. And it has everything to do with public transportation.”

Senate President Warren Petersen (R-Gilbert) said the GOP plan does not mean that there will never be a further extension of light rail. What it does mean, he said, is that it won’t be paid for by everyone who buys items subject to sales taxes throughout Maricopa County.

“If cities want to do light rail, you know what?” Petersen said. “They can find ways to fund it and do it.”

The antipathy toward light rail shows up in another provision. The legislation even contains a provision barring construction of a planned extension from downtown Phoenix to the state Capitol -- an extension that already is paid for with funds from the current levy.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler) derided it as a useless loop.

But that description doesn’t reflect the actual plan.

Instead, the idea is to eventually split the single line into two, one that runs north-south from the old Metrocenter Mall into an extension now under construction into south Phoenix, and an east-west line that already starts in Mesa but would go to the Capitol.

Splitting out future funds for light rail is only part of the difference from what is in the governor’s plan.

Hobbs wants 40% of the total $20 billion — assuming a single vote on a half-cent extension — for freeway construction. Rough math would put that at $8 billion.

By contrast, the GOP plan approved Tuesday sets aside 53.5% of the 0.43-cent levy in the first of the two questions for that purpose. Here, too, using rough math that means $9.2 billion for constructing and widening freeways.

Hobbs also wanted 40% of the total levy for transit, again, that same $8 billion. But even if voters were to approve both ballot questions, including for light rail, the total would be only about $6.6 billion — or just $4.8 billion if voters approve only the first question but not the second.

Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein (D-Tempe) told colleagues that short-changing mass transit — and light rail in particular — is not a good move.

“Light rail is the most efficient way to move people,” she said, especially in areas of high density. “And if we continue to have the idea that everything must be a single driver in a car on a road, we will just get to the point of having to pave every speck.”

But Sen. John Kavanagh (R-Scottsdale) said Arizona doesn’t have the density of a place like New York, where he is from, to make mass transit and rail a meaningful way to get people out of their cars.

There’s also something else in the Republican legislation that is unrelated to funding transit projects, something that also would have an effect beyond Maricopa residents.

Toma got language added to set the minimum speed on all interstate highways in the state’s largest county to 65 miles an hour. That would affect a nearly 15-mile stretch of Interstate 17 that runs through Phoenix where state highway engineers have posted 55 mph signs.

The House speaker said the decision by Republican lawmakers to override that decision is justified.

“It makes highway speeds consistent across the county and keeps up with the reality of highway driving,” he said.

For more, The Show spoke with Avondale Mayor Ken Weise, chair of MAG’s Regional Council.

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