One Valley lawmaker wants to use the bulk of Arizona’s “Rainy Day Fund” to accelerate freeway construction projects in the state.
But critics, including Gov. Janet Napolitano, say the money is there to relieve economic emergencies, not traffic jams.
Sen. Robert Burns, R-Peoria, said Arizona is lagging too far behind the growing demand for new freeway construction and needs a quick infusion of cash to catch up.
Burns, a fiscal conservative and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, plans to introduce a bill Tuesday that would transfer $450 million from the Budget Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, into the Statewide Transportation Acceleration Needs account for improving roadways.
“We’re well behind the curve on our highway construction,” Burns said. “The more you get behind the curve, the worse things get.”
But Napolitano spokesman Michael Haener said the fund was created as a means to balance the state budget in times of economic crisis.
“Unfortunately, Senator Burns’ proposal of taking money out of the Rainy Day Fund to pay for road construction isn’t something the governor wants to do,” Haener said.
Even before this year’s legislative session has begun, lawmakers have proposed a variety of alternatives for accelerating road construction, including higher taxes, an increase in borrowing limits or opening the door to privately owned toll roads.
Burns said all of the proposals deserve serious consideration, but none would provide as much money in as short a time as his Rainy Day Fund bill.
“It’s very simple and straightforward,” he said. “I mean, the bill is less than a page.”
Senate Majority Leader Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, agreed that the Legislature must consider a host of different plans to speed up road and highway construction and said he sees no problem with dipping into the Rainy Day Fund.
“Right now we’re going to look at all the options,” he said. “Nothing’s off the table.”
As former head of the Senate Transportation Committee and a representative of a fast-growing district, Verschoor said he is sensitive to the state’s traffic needs and will push his own plan to pump $200 million into the transportation account. Still, he didn’t give specifics about where the money would come from.
There is about $650 million in the Rainy Day Fund, which Burns said would leave enough for future needs.
However, Burns isn’t the only lawmaker with designs for the emergency stash. Sen. Jack Harper, R-Surprise, has proposed borrowing another $150 million from the fund to pay for school construction in underserved areas.
“Five percent growth in this state is a rainy day,” Harper said.
The money would be spent in areas seeing the fastest growth and with the most urgent needs, such as Gilbert and Queen Creek. It would eventually be paid back by the School Facilities Board, he said.
State economists sided with Napolitano on the issue, saying the Legislature has a shameful history of pilfering from the Rainy Day Fund for the wrong reasons.
“It wasn’t meant to be a slush fund, but that’s how the Legislature is using it,” said Tom Rex, associate director of the Center for Competitiveness and Prosperity Research at Arizona State University.
Rex said the fund is supposed to be increased during times of economic prosperity to ensure the state will have enough money for basic services during a recession.
He said state officials should focus on meeting longterm needs for road and school construction by generating adequate, ongoing revenue.
“Raiding the Rainy Day Fund is a way to avoid that, but it’s going to come back and slap you in the face,” Rex said.
Alberta Charney, senior research economist at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, said there are plenty of other, less risky ways of raising money for infrastructure.
She questioned why residents haven’t been given the chance to vote on a referendum that would raise money for new roads through taxation or other means.
“I think it would pass in a wink,” Charney said.
Still, Burns said, improving freeways in the short term would bring new economic opportunities to Arizona that would more than make up for the cost.
“This is a very important component in keeping our economy pumping,” he said.