Senate OKs sending transportation tax to Maricopa County voters

Metro Light Rail (file)

Proponents of extending an existing half-cent sales tax that funds Maricopa County transportation projects are closer to seeing it on the county ballot in November after the state Senate approved the measure.

The March 16 vote was not without heartburn — senators spent more than an hour debating the issue. But it passed with the needed 2/3 vote to go into effect immediately if the House also backs it by that margin and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signs the legislation.

The bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Tyler Pace of Mesa would ask voters to extend a tax that has helped pay for major Phoenix-area freeway projects in the past two decades as well as bus service and the Phoenix light rail system. It currently raises nearly $600 million a year and is set to expire in 2025.

The state sales tax is currently 5 cents per dollar, and local governments can add to that rate.

Opponents called the extension a new tax at the wrong time and with a wasteful spending plan, notably the 32% that can be spent on buses and light rail.

Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita of Scottsdale called the extension new because voters initially approved it in 2004 as a 20-year tax that would expire. She and other opponents also criticized the allowable use of money on light rail as a waste.

But she focused on the timing of the tax as well, noting voters can easily pass the extension in 2024.

"My problem with what we're doing is we don't need to do it now," she said.

She said voters are facing inflation, rising rents and high fuel prices that have some lawmakers pushing for a suspension of the state's 18 cents per gallon gas tax.

MORE: Federal Reserve hikes interest rate to fight inflation, more to come

Pace and other backers of the bill pointed to the massive amount of new freeway construction in the past two decades paid for with the tax. He noted that the new infrastructure has helped Maricopa County become the fastest growing in the nation and draw expansions by businesses such as Intel and other large manufacturers.

And he said the bill allows but does not require cities to use some of the 32% set aside for public transportation for new light rail projects.

"But there are cities, while members may not agree with it, who utilize light rail and feel that it is an investment for their cities," Pace said.

Maricopa is the only county in the state that must ask the Legislature for permission to ask their voters to impose a transportation tax. Republican Sen. J.D. Mesnard of Chandler noted that the bill voted on Wednesday was being pushed several years ago when he was House speaker.

Mesnard said the new version is much improved, but noted that the transportation sector is changing with new technology and he worried about pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into light rail.

"I am going to vote no, but I want it to be clear, it's not because I think it is a terrible bill," Mesnard said. "It's that at the end of the day, as far as it has come, light rail is just intolerable to me."

Pace also spoke of his personal connection to state roadway projects, noting his grandfather worked on the first paving project in Phoenix.

"That is the legacy that is Maricopa County, that is our roadways and is our state," Pace said. "I look forward to personally voting for this on the ballot and celebrating the continued improvement of our great state."

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