Efforts to extend Maricopa County's half-cent sales tax for transportation appeared on the brink of collapse Monday night as a handful of Republican senators continued to block the leading plan backed by Valley mayors.
Lawmakers are expected to resume negotiations on the issue this morning. But several Valley mayors emerged Monday night from three hours of private talks at the Capitol, saying it was time to consider bypassing the Legislature and seek approval of the plan city by city.
"It doesn't look like there's going to be a bill that advances," said Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano. "We will advance the plan another way. It’s too important to the region not to."
One key senator tried to blame the mayors, saying they refused to consider any compromise.
"There was zero movement for most of the negotiations," said Sen. Dean Martin, R-Phoenix, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "But we got that out of our system. We're still hopeful. We've still got time."
Frustration on both sides capped a day of mounting tension as the Maricopa Association of Governments and supporting business interests lobbied to win over a handful of senators blocking action in two committees. Several lawmakers and observers said they have never seen so much pressure applied before at the Capitol.
"We're only in the third week (of the regular session), and we're about to rip ourselves asunder on this issue," said Senate President Pro Tem Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale, a leading supporter of the MAG plan. "Some of the lobbyists are out of control, and some of us are pretty high-strung about this." MAG wants the Legislature to approve a May 18 county election with one ballot question on whether to continue the half-cent sales tax for another 20 years. Voter approval would authorize a $15.8 billion regional transportation plan that includes $2.2 billion to double the size of the Valley's future light-rail system.
Opponents of light rail want two questions — one for the sales tax and another for light rail — and they want them to go before voters at the Nov. 2 general election.
Adding to the pressure, the MAG bill must become law within six days to qualify for the May 18 ballot.
During 2 1/2 hours of committee testimony Monday, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said his city would abandon the plan if the MAG bill didn't go forward.
“We could not support it,” Gordon said. “The wiggle room was over last year.”
Gordon and other Valley mayors said critics of light rail were threatening the Valley's entire transportation agenda — along with the region’s economy — by blocking the plan.
But those critics said they won't be intimidated.
"No paid lobbyist, no special interest, is going to tell me how to vote or else," said Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert.
Gordon later endorsed Giuliano's idea of a city-by-city campaign this year to adopt half-cent sales tax increases that would fund the MAG plan without state legislation. Cities could act on their own, but the county must have legislative approval to call a sales-tax election.