The governor and the sales tax - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

The governor and the sales tax

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Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2009 4:52 pm | Updated: 1:12 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Le Templar: As Gov. Jan Brewer contemplates what to do with the latest budget proposal from the Legislature, this is a good time to address why she has been so firmly committed to an election for temporarily raising the sales tax.

As Gov. Jan Brewer contemplates what to do with the latest budget proposal from the Legislature, this is a good time to address why she has been so firmly committed to an election for temporarily raising the sales tax.

Up to this point, Brewer has seemed willing to compromise on almost any budget issue, at least with her fellow Republicans. But she has been steadfast in her demand to get that sales tax election, even though the legislative votes just aren't there. My analysis on this comes from interviews this year with members of Brewer's staff, various state lawmakers and other Capitol regulars. Here's a look at the factors involved:

Can't cut budget enough to solve crisis. Some experts believe the honest way to resolve the ongoing budget deficit would be to essentially cut general fund spending in half from last year's $10 billion to $5.5 billion or so. But Arizona spends that much alone on K-12 education, universities and community colleges. So, to avoid education cuts, Arizona would have to eliminate all of the other state agencies from the Department of Public Safety to the prison system to state funding for the courts, Child Protective Services and the state parks. Even those agencies that are heavily funded with federal dollars, such as the Department of Transportation and the state Medicaid insurance program, require matching state tax dollars to be eligible for that federal support.

Now, the state does have other ways to manage the deficit, primarily through indirect borrowing and federal stimulus dollars. But from Brewer's perspective, existing revenues are lagging so far behind expenses that a temporary tax increase is necessary just to keep funding basic government services.

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The governor and the sales tax

 

Just cut education as well, you say? Sorry, the voters forbid that when they approved the state's last general sales tax increase in 2000. Which leads me to:

Arizonans loathe higher taxes, except the sales tax. You hear people talk all the time that they are taxed too much. But Arizonans have been willing on a number of occasions to raise sales taxes to protect government programs or to fund new ones. This includes that 2000 statewide increase for education, the 2006 tax increase on tobacco for early childhood education, smaller increases for county transportation programs, and various local increases in Mesa, Scottsdale, Phoenix and Tucson.

Polling numbers have been somewhat mixed this year, but some surveys show the sales tax has the best possible chance of getting voter approval.

No other (Republican) proposals for new revenues have been offered. Brewer didn't start her term in January committed to a sales tax increase. In fact, she was repeatedly criticized for much of the regular session because she was less than specific in her budget expectations. She floated the sales tax proposal but clearly was open to other suggestions from Republicans in the Legislature. (Brewer had been too partisan to seriously discuss Democratic ideas for raising more revenues until last week.) Brewer zeroed in on a three-year, 1-cent sales tax increase in May when it became clear the Republican majority in the Legislature were going to send her a budget without any options to raise taxes.

Brewer doesn't lose. Call it tenacity or stubbornness, Brewer doesn't try to finesse a tough fight nor does she walk away. She digs in and pushes ahead relentlessly until she gets what she wants. Such persistence has benefited Brewer throughout her political career. She has little reason to act differently now that she holds the governor's office.

At this point, the only budget issue that Brewer has said in public she has to have is the sales tax election. Backing down from that would be out of character for Brewer, especially since this Legislature can't adopt a budget without her.

And yet, Brewer may no longer have any choice. Repeated efforts by Republican leaders have failed to produce enough legislative votes. Democrats have remained united in refusing to support the sales tax election unless they get to negotiate other parts of the budget, too. Residents already face higher property taxes that Brewer and Republican lawmakers wanted to repeal, but haven't because of their budget disagreements. And the state is stumbling along on a partial budget when the fiscal year is 2 months old.

Brewer simply may have run out of time.

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Le Templar is opinion page editor for the Tribune. He can be reached at (480) 898-6474 or ltemplar@evtrib.com. A version of this column originally appeared on Templar's blog at whatiknow.freedomblogging.com.

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