Hobbs supports 'Free Maricopa' ballot measure
Voters across the state will likely get to decide whether Maricopa County residents get a chance to extend a half-cent sales tax for transit projects.
Gov. Katie Hobbs said Wednesday that she will back a proposal to put an issue on the 2024 ballot repealing a state law that requires Maricopa County — and only Maricopa County — to get legislative approval before putting the tax renewal to voters.
The governor acknowledged that she could call lawmakers back to the Capitol after she vetoes the funding plan approved late Tuesday by Republican lawmakers. The governor said what was sent to her is unacceptable, from less money for mass transit than sought by the Maricopa Association of Governments to the fact that the GOP plan would require two separate votes.
But Hobbs said that makes no sense given that Republicans have drawn a line in the sand.
"I don't think it serves anyone's purpose if they're not willing to come to the table and talk about a deal,'' she said. "And that requires some cooling off.''
Time, however, is not a likely answer.
"This is going to be the only bill that passes this session'' on extension of the tax,'' said Rep. David Livingston (R-Peoria) of the GOP plan. "This is the only bill that voters will have a chance to vote on.''
And other Republicans made it clear that, from their perspective, if Hobbs won't accept their plan, that closes the door on Maricopa County voters having any chance to extend the levy, first approved in 1985, for 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.
But Avondale Mayor Kenn Weise, chairman of MAG, said that's not true. In fact, he said Wednesday that he already sent a letter to the governor seeking a veto.
What that leaves is Plan B, what Weise called the "Free Maricopa'' initiative. He said the idea is to sell voters statewide on the idea that residents of the state's largest county should not be hobbled by a restriction that doesn't apply anywhere else.
"Maricopa County is the only county in the state that has to go through this process'' of getting the blessing of state lawmakers to ask voters to extend the tax, Weise said. "And we've seen just how disastrous that can be.''
What that would mean is getting 255,949 valid signatures on petitions by July 3, 2024, to put the issue to voters that November. Then, if it passed, it would be up to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to set a date for a special election in early 2025 on extending the tax, one in sufficient time that, if approved, would kick in when the current levy expires at the end of that year.
Weise said he doesn't foresee a problem getting the necessary backing, especially in the wake of Republicans telling Maricopa County, effectively, that when it comes to a transit tax, it's their way or the highway.
"When things like this happen, it has a tendency to energize and galvanize those stakeholders that are vested in this plan,'' he said. "My hope is we would get support from the business community to move forward with this.''
Financial issues aside, Hobbs said she believes that voters statewide would be willing to support repeal of the restrictions under which Maricopa County has to operate.
"They're holding them hostage,'' she said. "It is ridiculous that Maricopa County has to go to the Legislature to get permission to go to the ballot for something for their region.''
Livingston said that the willingness to go to the ballot proves that MAG never was negotiating in good faith with the Legislature.
"This was their plan all along,'' Livingston said.
That's not true, said Ed Zuerker, MAG's managing director.
"We have given on freeways,'' he told Capitol Media Services. "They wanted more freeways, so we increased the freeway number.''
At the same time, Zuerker said, MAG decreased the percentage it was seeking for transit. And he said the organization agreed that any light rail extensions would be funded not by the half-cent sales tax but other revenues.
Zuerker said MAG even agreed to language to require Valley Metro to meet certain "benchmarks,'' based on comparable cities, of what percentage of the operating costs of buses, trolleys and light rail would be covered by fares.
"I mean, just time after time, we have found ways to give what they say they need and ask for as much as we can while keeping the plan intact,'' he said. "And we just have hit a limit of there's no more to give.''
Hobbs said she will be taking the lead from supporters of the renewed tax on how they want to proceed.
What Hobbs and MAG want is extension of the half-cent levy for 20 years, with 40% of the proceeds going towards freeways, an identical amount to mass transit, with the balance for regional and arterial roads.
By contrast, Republican lawmakers authorized a vote on a 0.0495 cent levy, with a larger share going towards freeways. More to the point, they want Maricopa residents to have to approve not just the basic 0.43-cent levy but a separate 0.07-cent tax for construction and extension of light rail.