Efforts are unraveling to win quick legislative support for extending Maricopa County’s half-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects.
Valley cities and the Maricopa Association of Governments squared off Friday with a handful of Republicans state senators over light-rail funding as part of a $15.8 billion regional transportation plan. The senators, who want light rail to be considered separately on any public ballot, have the upper hand because MAG doesn’t have enough legislator votes to pass the plan in time for a desired May 18 election.
"This is the only way we’re going to get a chance to vote on light rail (separately)," said Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert. "I support extension of the tax, but light rail should stand on its own."
Mayors from across the Valley were outraged Friday after learning the original plan had been blocked, even though the county and every single city has endorsed it.
"It’s not in keeping with our spirit of cooperation, which we had when we developed the plan," said Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano, reached Friday at a mayoral conference in Washington, D.C. "I think it’s a shame that five or six senators can hold up the most pro-business and important transportation legislation they will ever vote on.
"With their views on light rail, they have defined themselves as transportation segregationists, and they want everything to be their way," Giuliano said. "They do not recognize we are all in this together."
Valley cities and several business groups has been planning for more than two years a countywide election on renewing the sales tax, which has helped fund miles of freeways, road improvements and buses but is set to expire in 2005. Last year, the Legislature required MAG to develop a comprehensive list of projects to show voters how the tax dollars would be spent over the next two decades.
To win support from Tempe and Phoenix, MAG agreed to set aside $2.2 billion for 27.7 miles of light-rail track. Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa already plan to build the Valley’s first 20 miles of light rail with local tax dollars and federal matching grants.
The MAG proposal before the Legislature calls for voters to consider light rail as part of a single transportation package. The plan would require light rail to meet certain performance expectations for funding to continue.
The legislators also want a May 18 election, but that would require approval of twothirds of the Legislature by Feb. 3. The alternative would be the November general election.
Light-rail critics hold enough sway in the state Senate to prevent immediate passage. As heavy lobbying this week failed to pick up more votes, key lawmakers started looking for alternatives.
"I’ve told the Senate, ‘Whatever you send me, I’m going to muster up the votes to get this thing done,’ " said Rep. Gary Pierce, R-Mesa and chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "I’m ready to play the hand I’m dealt."
A group of Republican senators agreed Thursday night to change the plan by having the Legislature extend the tax without a public election but without the light-rail component. County voters would consider light-rail funding in 2009, after the first independent audit of light-rail operations is completed.
Sen. Dean Martin, RPhoenix, and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said bypassing a public vote to keep the tax would be acceptable because voters approved spending the money on highways and public buses in 1985 and recent polls show strong support remains for continuing with those areas.
"This is simply an idea that put together as a compromise to make sure that our roads and freeways are built to keep up with the explosive growth," Martin said.
Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon rushed to the Capitol on Friday morning to meet behind closed doors with key senators. They said afterward they won’t accept attempts to separate light rail from the rest of the transportation package.
"Light rail is not going to go forward unless it performs because (that requirement is) in the bill and the federal government wouldn’t fund it," Hawker said. "They already have that check-and-balance. I think there’s an overconcern about the light rail not performing. If you don’t get that 50 percent federal match, you’re not going to build light rail."
Martin said he would offer the new deal at Monday’s finance committee meeting unless MAG comes up with a better option over the weekend. He added the plan probably won’t meet the Feb. 3 deadline anyway because the bill isn’t scheduled to be heard in time.