Rep. David Cook extinguished Republican hopes for a tax-slashing budget on the same morning the hills around his home were flaring up.
Cook, a Republican who ranches near Globe, was in Phoenix, raising pointed questions about the GOP budget Monday when officials warned his family and others in the area to evacuate.
On Tuesday when I talked to him by phone, he had not yet evacuated. But he stepped away from the call to talk to firefighters, offering to use a skip-loader to help with firefighting efforts.
On the budget, his main point was simple and steadfast. “There’s not supposed to be policy in a budget,” he said.
“This is a major tax policy change that is being shoved into the budget.”
In a House divided 31-29, the Democrats were united against the budget bills that would slash tax rates in a way that primarily benefits the wealthy. Republicans needed to stay united in support of the budget for it to pass, but they knew Cook was a holdout.
In fact, they called members in, as the Telegraph Fire burned in the Eastern Arizona mountains, in part to test his resolve.
In the end, he held firm, as GOP Sen. Paul Boyer had in the upper chamber.
The budget measures barely failed, by one vote in each chamber, and yet they are nowhere near passing, perhaps because they are hung up on people with a different definition of conservatism — one that prioritizes upholding commitments over cutting taxes steeply.
Cook was perhaps an unlikely savior for the many Arizonans who oppose the budget, which includes a flat income-tax rate of 2.5% for all Arizona taxpayers that would slash state revenue. He’s been a strong Republican and Trump supporter, and he’s also been in some trouble.
During his time at the Legislature, Cook has been arrested for DUI and also investigated by the House for an alleged affair with a lobbyist, which he denied. But he showed spine when it counted Monday morning.
First he questioned Rep. Regina Cobb about the timing of the introduction of key amendments. One of them would cap the income-tax rate anyone pays at 4.5%. Even with the 2.5% flat tax, this measure is necessitated by voters passing a 3.5% surcharge on incomes above $250,000 for single people or $500,000 for married couples.
That surcharge only applies to incomes above those thresholds, so it means an additional $35 in tax due for every $1,000 above $250,000 or $500,000.
On Monday, Cobb declined to answer a question from a Democratic member about when she supplied the text of her amendments to the whole House, including Democrats, who were upset they’d heard of substantive changes so late. Cook objected to Cobb.
“The member yielded to the question, then refused to answer the question,” he said. “The question, I will repeat, is were these amendments emailed to just me, or were members of the entire body given the email yesterday afternoon?”
Cook couldn’t believe that key provisions had just been introduced as amendments that morning, as he told majority leader Rep. Ben Toma, a Peoria Republican who is a true believer in trickle-down economics.
“I hope that any member would be concerned that, by your own statement, this is major tax policy for the state of Arizona in an amendment to a bill on the House floor that was given to me this morning,” Cook said.
Many other members were concerned, too. But they were all Democrats, unlikely allies of Cook.
“I have a lot of constituents who are extremely concerned about this budget,” said Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, a Tucson Democrat. “They want to know what this body is doing, but we do not have a commitment to transparency in this body. Half of us were not given these amendments by Ms. Cobb yesterday.”
Of course, Cook’s and the Democrats’ concerns with the bill go beyond transparency. They noted that no one knows the true impact on state revenue of implementing these tax cuts, though the estimate is that it will cost the state $1.9 billion in revenue by 2024, partly balanced off by projected state surpluses.
One of the biggest concerns is that cuts in tax revenue will simply mean cost-shifting to the cities and counties, who will have to raise the lost money by increasing property and sales taxes.
“All we’re doing here is raising taxes the Arizona way,” said Democratic Rep. Andres Cano of Tucson.
He’s right, of course.
But it took a Republican rancher from a burning Globe to make the Tucson Democrats’ points count.
Tim Steller is an opinion columnist. A 25-year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his conclusions.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter