Pima County could ask voters to double sales tax for roads under bill OK’ed by House

PHOENIX — Pima County business interests and their allies are making another bid to be able to ask voters to double the current half-cent sales tax that pays for road construction.

But getting area residents to go along could depend on what kind of job they think the Regional Transportation Authority is doing now. And crucial to that could be whether the authority will keep adding and widening roads or will spend money to maintain those already built, said Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson.

Current law allows the Pima County Board of Supervisors to put a measure on the ballot to extend the existing levy beyond 2026.

House Bill 2109, now making its way through the Arizona Legislature, would permit a vote to take the tax to a full cent.

Lobbyist Michael Racy of the Pima Association of Governments said the legislation would authorize two separate — and interlocking —votes: One for the higher levy, and one to approve the plan that the Regional Transportation Authority adopts for how those new dollars would be spent.

Both would have to be approved by voters, Racy said.

The authorizing legislation cleared a crucial hurdle last week when the House gave its go-ahead on a 44-16 margin.

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, was among the dissenters.

He said the additional half-cent levy could result in combined state and local sales taxes in the 9 percent range “with the possibility of going even higher.”

“It would be putting an unfair burden on retailers,” especially with lawmakers still trying to figure out whether and how to tax online sales, he said.

HB 2109 now goes to the Senate.

Promoting the legislation, Ted Maxwell, president and CEO of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, told lawmakers that a thriving and growing economy is good for the community.

“We’ve felt for a long time that infrastructure was the backbone to making an economy vibrant,” he said.

Projects funded by the existing RTA levy have helped improve downtown Tucson, Maxwell said.

Powers Hannley said not everyone in Southern Arizona sees it that way.

“RTA has had somewhat of a rocky road with the citizens of Tucson,” she said.

“The projects that are going on in Tucson now have hollowed out midtown, they’ve knocked down businesses,” Powers Hannley said. “There’s a lot of people who have voted for me who said they would never vote to reauthorize the RTA the way it is right now.”

A big issue, she said, is that the authority is busy building and widening roads, but has not been spending money when major maintenance and rebuilding is required.

For the most recent year, the RTA took in more than $91.2 million, most of it from the half-cent levy.

Maxwell conceded there are no maintenance dollars in the current funding plans.

And as to the future, “We are years away from making this decision,” he told Powers Hannley.

“I can’t guarantee there will be maintenance money,” Maxwell said.

He said it will be up to the 35-member advisory committee to come up with a spending plan — the plan that eventually would be presented to voters.

Powers Hannley said the only reason she voted for the bill when it cleared the House was because “they gave me a verbal OK that maintenance would be considered” in the next plan.

Witnesses urging lawmakers to provide Pima County with the authority to raise the levy, meanwhile, included Steve Huffman, a former state lawmaker who now lobbies for the Tucson Association of Realtors.

Huffman said the business community has brought people involved in selecting sites for new and expanded business into Pima County.

Asked what local officials need to do to attract jobs and businesses to the region, “The No. 1 thing they tell us is infrastructure,” he said. “We have to improve our infrastructure.”

Huffman told lawmakers the existing funding already has paid off.

“If we didn’t have the RTA and the projects that they’re doing right now, we’d be in even worse shape than we are,” he said.

In November, Pima County voters defeated a proposed $430 million county bond project for road maintenance and repairs. Proposition 463 failed by about 56 percent to 44 percent.

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