As this column has explored several times, any Pima County Board of Supervisors-approved sales tax would have to clear a high bar — a unanimous 5-0 vote.
That’s a tall order given the strong opposition of Supervisor Ally Miller, who argues the county already has enough resources to address crumbling roads but is squandering them on nonessential projects, and the skepticism of Supervisor Richard Elías, who is uncomfortable with the regressive nature of sales taxes.
However, bills working their way through the Legislature would open a path to a county half-cent sales tax for road repair and maintenance with a simple majority vote of the board.
As written, the legislation — SB 1147 in the Senate and HB 2165 in the House — simply allow county boards in the state to refer such a measure to the voters, who would have the ultimate say.
Would you support a half-cent RTA sales tax for road repair and maintenance?
It is estimated that bringing all roads in Pima County up to fair condition would cost around $1 billion, something some officials said the current Road Property Tax is not capable of addressing. A half-cent sales tax would bring in substantially more money.
The Senate version of the bill, which was approved by the transit committee unanimously last week, adds some twists for Maricopa and Pima counties.
In Pima County, the supervisors would only be able to refer a sales tax question to voters after receiving a “written request of the Regional Transportation Authority,” whose board would determine the length of the tax (between 10 and 20 years), according to the text of adopted amendments. The proceeds would also be deposited into the authority’s fund.
State law currently caps the RTA tax at a half-cent, but the Senate version of the bill would raise that to a full cent and also make clear that proceeds could be spent on both building new roads and maintaining those already built.
“Given the highlighted public concerns regarding road repair and pavement rehabilitation, it is clear that if this legislation passes, we should concentrate entirely on road repair and pavement rehabilitation for the next 10 years,” County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry recently wrote to RTA Executive Director Farhad Moghimi. “Using this new authority would be superior to the method now contemplated — a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors.”
In the same letter, Huckelberry asks the RTA’s Technical Management Committee to begin discussions on “how best to establish an appropriate road-repair and pavement-rehabilitation program that could be referred to the voters almost immediately after any successful legislation allowing the same emerges from this session of the Arizona Legislature.”
Michael Racy, the county’s lobbyist, said there’s a possibility the tax could be on the ballot as soon as November if the bill is signed, but that 2019 was more likely.
The House version of the bill failed in a committee vote last week, but is on the agenda for possible reconsideration Wednesday, according to a legislative agenda.
According to Racy, the bill would allow for putting a full 1-cent tax to the voters, which would mean the existing RTA half-cent tax would be terminated upon approval. Miller said that would constitute “backdoor” RTA reauthorization. Huckelberry said it was far more likely that just an additional half-cent would be pursued at first, because developing a full plan for the capacity funding is time-intensive. The current RTA half-cent sales tax expires in 2026.
Supervisor Steve Christy, who previously put forward a county sales tax proposal that also featured RTA management, said there’s a lot he likes in the legislation, especially the voter approval. He pointed out that one of the the reasons he drafted his own plan is his doubt the Legislature could pass something quickly enough to start repairing roads in the near future.
“All of a sudden we’re turning around, and that fear I had is not warranted anymore,” he said.
Miller, who has formally lodged her opposition to the bill, pointed to costly efforts to repair the Old Pima County Courthouse and build new fields at the Kino Sports Complex as examples of unnecessary spending that should go toward roads.
“We cannot focus on the core services of Pima County,” she said.
The legislation also drew concerns from the Arizona Tax Research Association. At the Senate hearing, the association’s Jennifer Stielow drew attention to portions of the bill that would allow for the automatic increase from a half cent to a full cent upon expiration of other sales taxes. It also allowed for boards to propose that sales taxes sent to voters for approval be perpetual, meaning they could only be undone by another countywide vote.
In response to those concerns, Sen. Bob Worsley, the bill’s sponsor, said “that is not our intention, and we will work with ATRA to make sure we get the words right.”
But what do you think? Would you support an additional half-cent RTA tax for road repair and maintenance? There’s a poll with the online version of this story to weigh in.