senate floor
Senators Question Timing, Use Of Maricopa County Transportation Sales Tax

March 17, 2022

By Terri Jo Neff |

In a rare split, nine Republican Senators voted Wednesday against a bill sponsored by a member of their own caucus, with one senator calling on Gov. Doug Ducey to veto the bill if it hits his desk.

Voters approved the one-half cent sales tax for transportation funding back in the early 1980s and again in 2004 as Proposition 400. It is set to expire at the end of 2025 unless voters approve an extension that will general billions over the course of the proposed new extension.

To understand the money at play, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee projects the current Maricopa County transportation tax will generate in $754 million in annual revenue in 2025 alone.

Senate Bill 1356 was introduced in January by Sen. Tyler Pace as the vehicle to get the choice in front of voters. It contains an emergency clause, so if signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey then the extension option will appear on the 2020 General Election ballot.

Voters in Maricopa County would then have a chance to say aye or nay to another extension. They will also have a good idea for how the tax revenue would be spent during the next two decades thanks to a draft spending plan from the Maricopa Association of Government.

But it appears the rush to get the matter on the ballot this year was more of an objection to those senators voting against the bill than the extension itself.

For Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, putting the matter before voters in 2022 does not make sense considering the sales tax extension can go on the 2024 ballot. 

“We have some members that are requesting that we suspend the 18 cents gas tax,” she said in explaining her no vote. “We’re sending mixed messages. There’s no reason we need to do it now.  We can do this in 2024.”    

Ugenti-Rita pointed out that Republicans have been touting tax cuts the last several years and are now asking voters in Maricopa County to approve a tax increase that cannot be undone for 25 years.

“Coming up on an election, this is the worst thing Republicans can do, is mandate a historic tax increase be placed on the ballot,” she added while calling on Ducey to veto the bill if it gets that far.

Joining Ugenti-Rita in voting against SB1356 were Senators Nancy Barto, Sonny Borrelli, David Gowan, Vince Leach, JD Mesnard, Warren Petersen, Wendy Rogers, and Kelly Townsend.

For Mesnard, the inclusion of funding for “intolerable” light rail projects was the primary reason for his no vote even though he applauded Pace for the effort put into the legislation. 

“The thing that I have just wrestled over is when I look now down 25 yeas in the future, what is transportation going to look like?” Mesnard said on the floor. “And so I have been uncomfortable with the idea that we would spend what I think is hundreds of millions, billions of dollars, on light rail.”

SB1356 also makes several changes to the distribution of the tax revenues, while modifying the budgeting process for the Maricopa Association of Governments which will have to create a Transportation Tax Plan. And it increases the tax period from 20 to 25 years.  

Gowan explained his no vote is also tied to the inclusion of so much money for light rail projects, saying he thought the money would be better spent on the construction of freeways and maintenance of existing highways and streets.

“I think it is a better fit for those dollars that we would get for light rail to actually go into the roads…the highways that we all travel,” Gowan said Wednesday. “I do believe, no pun intended, it’s a bridge too far to go with the light rail. And that is why you see me voting no today, Madame President.”

SB1359 still passed out of the Senate on a 21 to 9 vote, securing the two-thirds votes required of an emergency clause. It has been transmitted to the House where its passage is not assured due to the  two-thirds requirement of the 60 representatives.

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