Republican gubernatorial hopeful Vernon Parker took the first steps Wednesday to start collecting cash to battle a proposal by Gov. Jan Brewer for a temporary tax hike.
Parker filed the paperwork for the "Save Our Jobs: Stop the Tax Hike" committee designed to convince voters to reject higher sales taxes if the issue makes its way to the ballot. That 1-cent hike in the state's 5.6 percent sales tax is a key element of Brewer's plan for economic recovery.
Parker said he believes higher taxes would be the worst thing the state could do to its economy. He said Arizona can find its way out of the current deficit without additional funds, though he refused to provide specifics.
But in forming the committee, Parker could run afoul of laws that govern the activities of publicly financed candidates for office. And Parker said he intends to run his bid to oust Brewer with public funds.
Todd Lang, director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said Parker is free to operate and chair a separate issues-oriented campaign about the merits of higher taxes. The fact that a key plank of Parker's publicly financed gubernatorial campaign is opposition to higher taxes, Lang said, is not a problem.
What would be a problem, Lang said, is if the campaign materials and speeches for the anti-tax campaign cross the line to the point where they are designed to influence how people vote in the Republican gubernatorial primary.
Lang said that definitely means the anti-tax bid, financed with private donations, cannot endorse Parker for governor.
Where it gets trickier is if the campaign against the tax hike takes a direct slap at Brewer, who has been the prime force behind pushing the tax hike.
"That would be something we'd look at," Lang said.
Keeping the issues separate could prove difficult.
In fact, Parker used "seed money" he has collected for his gubernatorial bid to send out a press release announcing the formation of the "Save Our Jobs: Stop the Tax Hike" committee.
Lang said that isn't a legal problem, as gubernatorial candidate Parker is free to mention any issue that relates to his campaign. And anti-tax committee chairman Parker can appear in commercials paid for by that committee and give speeches criticizing the proposal to hike higher taxes. Where it becomes a problem, said Lang, is when he starts referring to the tax proposal in a way that criticizes Brewer, his primary election foe, for proposing it in the first place.
Brewer is pushing lawmakers to vote later this month to put the question on the ballot in a special election, possibly in March.
Parker, who in the last poll came in with the backing of just 6 percent of Republicans, said he did not form the anti-tax committee to raise his profile.
"This tax issue is something that is near and dear to me," he said. "I truly believe for the state of Arizona to get out of this economic downturn that you can't raise taxes."
Parker said his name, as chairman, will be on all materials prepared and paid for by the anti-tax committee. He brushed aside questions of whether he tried to get anyone else who is not running for office to chair the effort.
"It's about leadership; it truly is," he said. "Why would I go around and shop for someone to do something if this is about leadership and taking control of this issue that I truly believe in?"
Parker said higher taxes will only slow the state's economic recovery. "The focus should be on whether we are making Arizona a business-friendly state," he said.
His actions drew a sharp response from Doug Cole, who is working with Brewer on her re-election bid.
"Vernon Parker needs to get out of the posh confines of Paradise Valley and education himself about how desperate Arizona's budget situation is," Cole said.
Brewer said the current deficit, now at $1.6 billion, cannot be solved solely with spending cuts and borrowing without doing severe harm to education and cuts to vital social services.
She also said the revenue picture is not improving for future years. But Arizona's share of stimulus dollars will be all but gone after this year.
"The voters of Arizona need to be told the truth," Cole said. "The governor is trying to do that."
Parker declined to provide details of how he would deal with the state's short-term deficit.
Much of state spending is mandated, including more than $3 billion a year in aid to schools and $1 billion to provide free health care for everyone below the federal poverty level. Lawmakers have been loath to cut the $925 million budget for the Department of Corrections. And that leaves only one other large place to cut: the $938 million that goes to fund the state's three universities.
State revenues are estimated at $6.7 billion for the current fiscal year.