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.
Governor Doug Ducey today signed a bipartisan relief package to support firefighters and safety officials as they battle wildfires, ensure Arizona communities have the resources necessary for post-fire disasters such as flooding and reduce the risk from future wildfires.
The $100 million package passed with strong bipartisan support during a legislative special session called by the Governor after a visit to the Telegraph and Mescal Fires last week.
“We are in the midst of another catastrophic wildfire season, and it’s clear that we need to do more to fight these wildfires,” said Governor Ducey. “Many Arizona communities have already felt the impacts of this year’s wildfire season — people and pets have been displaced, homes have burned down, swaths of land have been decimated. I’m grateful that we were able to quickly come together in a bipartisan manner for the safety and protection of our communities. My thanks goes to our first responders working tirelessly to combat these fires, local and state agency leaders for their leadership during this time, and the legislators who worked across the aisle to get this bill passed.”
The wildfire relief package was led by a bipartisan group of legislators representing both rural and urban Arizona, including House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Representative Gail Griffin, Representative David Cook, House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, Senate President Karen Fann, Senate President Pro Tem Vince Leach, Senator Sine Kerr and Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios.
House Bill 2001 includes:
$24.6 million for a partnership between the Department of Forest and Fire Management and the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry to reduce wildfire risk to Arizona communities by removing fire-prone vegetation; and
$75 million for fire suppression efforts, recovery efforts including post-fire floods, economic assistance for those displaced, and assistance to landowners for emergency repairs to infrastructure damaged by wildfires.
“Thank you, Governor, for allowing us to work together, and thank you, Minority Leader Bolding and Leader Rios, for your help on an issue where we can come together for a common goal,” House Speaker Rusty Bowers said. “People who aren’t Republicans or Democrats – they’re just our friends and people.”
“I look forward to partnering with my colleagues on continuing bipartisan success because wildfires don’t care which party you belong to,” said Senator Sine Kerr, who introduced House Bill 2001’s mirror legislation in the Senate.
Arizona is currently in the midst of fire season, having already experienced 918 wildfires burning over 245,000 acres this year. The Telegraph Fire visited by the Governor last week is currently the sixth-largest wildfire in state history.
“There is no question that there was an enormous need to dedicate as many resources as possible to fight the currently active wildfires as well as to prevent future ones from occurring,” Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said. “I applaud the governor for calling a special session to address this extraordinary wildfire season. This was clearly a major issue that needed immediate attention, and I’m grateful for Governor Ducey’s action in bringing bipartisan leadership to work together to address this critical need.”
“We must do what we are doing today to react to this emergency, but we must also do everything in our power to mitigate the crisis for future generations – and we must do that together,” House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding said. “Thank you again, Governor Ducey. My colleagues in both the Republican caucus and our caucus stand ready to work together and ready to move forward.”
The Governor was also joined by Department of Forestry and Fire Management Director David Tenney, Department of Emergency and Military Affairs Director and Adjutant General Kerry Muehlenbeck and Gila County Supervisor Steve Christensen.
“I’d like to thank the Governor for calling this special session on behalf of Gila County and rural Arizona,” said Gila County Supervisor Steve Christensen. “The leadership in Gila County says thank you for being an advocate for Arizona. I’d like to extend my thanks to the Legislature and their willingness to work in a bipartisan way.”
On June 9, the Governor issued two Declarations of Emergency in response to the Telegraph and Mescal Fires in Pinal and Gila Counties. The orders made up to $400,000 available for response efforts, and followed a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a Fire Management Assistance Grant on June 6.
In March, the Governor signed Senate Bill 1442 to prevent wildfires by allowing for additional partnerships to employ Arizona inmates to clear forests of debris. The legislation aligns with the Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative proposed in the Governor’s budget which builds on proven methods to protect communities, while engaging individuals in state correctional facilities to equip them with new skills and reduce recidivism.