Rim Country’s state lawmakers strongly support a plan to ask voters to approve a temporary 1 cent increase in the sales tax — and not a moment too soon.
Gov. Jan Brewer on Monday called for a special session of the Legislature in a desperate attempt to end a year of confusion and deadlock by letting voters decide on a temporary tax increase to reduce a projected $2 billion deficit in the fiscal year that will start in June.
Brewer issued a statement Monday saying, “I have asked that members of the Legislature prioritize the most essential services of state government. I believe that the essential public safety services of state government must be protected, as well as vitally important classroom funding for our children. In all of my years as an elected official, I have never advocated for a temporary revenue increase. I do not issue this call lightly, but only after the most serious and careful contemplation that it is absolutely necessary. I trust the will of the voters of the state of Arizona.”
The sales tax boost wouldn’t take effect until after the May election, so it wouldn’t do anything to reduce this year’s projected $1.5 billion deficit, but could save off near state budget collapse in June, said Rim Country’s Republican representatives in the Legislature.
“There’s just no excuse for it,” said First District Rep. Bill Konopnicki of the nearly year-long budget standoff between Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and the leaders of the Republican-controlled house and senate. “We’ve had way too much gamesmanship, too many people being influenced by lobbyists and special interest groups — they’re not being citizens of the state of Arizona.”
The Legislature’s refusal to deal with a projected $1.5 billion deficit in the current fiscal year for the past six months has now made the problem far worse, he said.
“We had to borrow our way out of the deficit for this year so we’ve dug an even deeper hole,” he said.
Konopnicki said the Legislature approved a scheme to raise nearly $800 million by selling off and then leasing back the state capitol buildings at a cost of $61 million annually for the next 20 years — then spent the money almost immediately.
“That isn’t how I’d run my life, that isn’t how I’d run my business — but people are just not making the necessary decisions, so we’re forced into these rather ridiculous choices.”
He said he would vote to refer the sales tax measure to voters in May and would urge people to support the temporary increase in the sales tax.
Republican Fifth District State Sen. Sylvia Allen said she would also vote this week to refer the sales tax hike to the voters. However, she didn’t know whether she would actually urge voters to support the sales tax boost once it appears on the ballot.
“The drastic things we’re having to do —the voters have to know,” she explained. “If they say yes, then we know we have about a billion dollars to help us out. If they say no, then we know what we have to do. It’s a serious thing.”
She said she was reluctant to make even deeper and more drastic cuts in state spending, until the voters had made a decision.
However, she wasn’t willing to also urge voters to support the sales tax increase if it makes the May ballot.
“I’m so conflicted,” she said.
She said she would urge voters to decide on whether to impose the sales tax increase on themselves based on whether the Legislature seemed to “be on the right track” in the big cuts necessary just to balance this year’s budget.
“We are trying to reform government and we are putting in place laws so that never again will we overspend like we have a billion dollars the last six years in a row. We need to restore (voters’) confidence that we’re doing everything we can. But we’ve been off track for a long time in this country,” said Allen.
In addition, she said she feared the Legislature wouldn’t in the end honor the provisions that would make the sales tax increase temporary.
Konopnicki said even if voters approve the sales tax increase, the Legislature will face wrenching problems bringing the budget back into balance. He said he would favor expanding the sales tax to include food and services to raise enough money to put the state on a solid footing again and boost the new revenue to about $1.7 billion.
“The projected revenue for this year is $6.7 billion — and the mandatory spending is $6.9 billion — and that doesn’t include higher education, prisons, department of public safety — everything else.
“Our backs are against the wall. I’m quite upset the Legislature is paralyzed — cannot make a decision, will not make a decision. Either way — whatever decision the citizens make — then we have to move forward. We’ve got a lot at risk — especially in rural Arizona — community colleges, our hospitals, our community health centers, and the Legislature is just digging a bigger hole.”