Pima County impasse over sales tax for roads a result of Dem gerrymandering | What the Devil won't tell you
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What the Devil won't tell you

Pima County impasse over sales tax for roads a result of Dem gerrymandering

Strict party-line votes result of drawing boundaries to protect incumbents

Our Pima County supervisors are approaching Wile E. Coyote territory with another push for a unanimous sales tax vote that is never going to happen.

At some point, after the umpteenth cliff fall or the eleventyeth Acme rocket immolation, the coyote might have said to himself "OK, maybe not this particular roadrunner."

Wile E., we know, lacked any and all free will because he was a fictional character drawn by Chuck Jones. His decisions were made for him. Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and the Democratic majority of the Board of Supervisors have volition and agency. Yet here they go again.

Supervisors are scheduled to vote June 19 on a sales tax to fund road construction and repairs, and the deal even comes with a property tax cut to ease the sting. Under state law, it requires a unanimous vote to impose. The supes try it every few years and it never goes anywhere.

Five votes can not be found on the Pima County Board of Supervisors to levy a sales tax because two of those seats on the board only answer to Republican voters. Democrats saw to that.

Think about it. The Pima County Republican Party just chased one of their own would-be candidates out of the party because he had supported a sales tax increase for roads and public safety. Gary Watson could have done some real damage in his bid for a Tucson City Council seat if he had the party's operational (such as it is) support. That single act deviating from orthodoxy was enough to get himself disowned.

There was some back and forth during a discussion among the supes last week about the ins and outs of the sales tax and how it might be used.

My peeps, the county's proposal was iron-clad and detailed down to the individual laptop computer, and Republicans considering supporting it are still punishable by excommunication.

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That's not shade on the Republicans. Part of leadership means understanding what is possible. Huckelberry and the Democrats don't seem to understand the other side's red lines. Ally Miller and Steve Christy are creatures of their districts and the voters within them. Who created those districts?

The Democrats did. The supes draw their own districts upon recommendations from a citizens committee that could be described as doing the incumbents bidding.

Ahhh. Now we get to the nub of it.

If Democrats want a unanimous vote on an issue as contentious as a sales tax, they start in a hole because they have drawn two districts overstuffed with Republicans. Digging themselves out would mean threatening their own survival. Politicians hate that.

To get it done will either require cutting a deal behind closed doors or changing state law to allow for other options for the Board of Supervisors to impose a sales tax.

Tax shaming conservatives? Have county leaders been asleep for the last 50 years? It's like shaming Democrats on the environment.

Serving democracy

That leaves changing the map, which might seem like a lot of overkill for a single issue. I admit it. I'm extreme on the subject of competitive elections because voters should pick leaders and not the other way around. Politicians should have some inkling there's some consequence to an election.

The last time I suggested something outside the box, like a regional approach to taxation, I got huffed and puffed at by the county higher-ups.

I offer up a well-thought out criticism of how the county draws the lines.

"The effect of that has been a suppression of democracy. In the last board election in 2008 four of five supervisors ran unopposed in the general election (though, ironically, three of five faced party challengers in the primary).

"The way county voters are divided in the five supervisor districts serves the interests of the incumbents but it certainly doesn’t serve the interests of the county’s voters."

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That's how former TucsonCitizen.com editor and current chief county spokesman Mark Evans put it in 2011, and his words are just as right about the situation now.

What Evans and I must deal with though is Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bars the dilution of minority voter rights. It's just hard to argue federal law requires the degree of chicanery we see here. Also, Arizona no longer falls under "pre-clearance" rules that require prior federal OK for election changes, as they were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.

Laws requiring minority representation balkanize the power of the minority voter by segregation. It's the same argument Democrats are making against political gerrymandering across the country.

Democrats complain about gerrymandering nationally should maybe take a look at themselves locally. Making Republican districts more competitive means making the Democratic districts less safe. Brothers and sisters, those districts are designed to protect the majority.

Beware pols fearing velociraptors

Republicans are loaded into districts with other GOPers in a little thing called "packing." The ruling party stuffs as many of the other side's voters as possible into a few districts, thereby making their own districts completely safe. Supervisor Ally Miller represents District 1, which includes 51,000 registered Republicans. Supervisors Richard Elias, Ramon Valadez and Sharon Bronson represent 54,000 registered Republicans combined.

A supervisorial district that resembled Pima County's voter breakdown would include about 40,000 Democrats, 31,000 Republicans and 32,000 independents.

This is how the district-by-district numbers are carved up absolutely nothing like that:


DISTRICT 1 41,567 51,085 925 228 38,875 132,680
DISTRICT 2 35,558 16,990 697 249 26,304 79,798
DISTRICT 3 37,169 25,912 824 377 29,808 94,090
DISTRICT 4 37,198 48,651 931 237 37,738 124,755
DISTRICT 5 44,768 13,419 650 429 25,495 84,761
TOTAL       196,260 156,057 4,027 1,520 158,220 516,084

Nice gig if you can get it, Democrats. This is why Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in Valadez's district and 3 to 1 in Elias'.

Either are more likely to be eaten by a velociraptor than being beaten by a Republican in a general election. And yes, I'm aware velociraptors have been extinct for 70 million years, were native only to central Asia and stood not much bigger than a turkey but the comparison still stands.

Following basic math, no Democrat is going to knock off a Republican in their safe districts. Even if they could, when was the last time a Democrat won an election by promising a sales tax?

I don't get how this coercion is supposed to work.

Communities of convenience

The map was most recently changed in 2011, when a Redistricting Committee recommended how a new map should reflect the changes in population that occurred between 2000 and 2010 censuses. Supervisors approved some minor tweaks to a 2001 map that set Republicans on fire.

The Redistricting Committee back then made some pretty obvious moves to redraw Bronson's district and make it safer. It's basically where we stand today.

Now, there are two opposing forces working against each other whenever redistricting is brought up. There's the desire for competitive elections rubbing against the degree it compromises communities of interest. Protecting communities of interest means the Foothills or the South Side have specific needs that require specific representation. It also means safe districts for most politicians.

As a rule, the first party to invoke the "communities-of-interest" rallying cry is the one that is seeking to gain political power, because the interest of their political community is to rule.

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So the last time the districts were changed, this is what we heard from a Democrat just prior to the 2011 redistricting.

"A lot of people argue for what I call 'pretty lines,' but what you really want as a district is to be associated with communities of interest," Board of Supervisors Chairman Ramón Valadez said after Tuesday's meeting. "If I have no common interest with my neighbor, it will be difficult to get good representation."

With all due respect to the good and capable Valadez, a democracy is about balancing interests. The fewer interests elected officials are allowed to balance, the less they are forced to consider the community as a whole. That's the civics argument. The political truth is a community-of-interest tends to belong to a single party. The more politicians invoke their single community argument, what they are really saying is "general elections are terribly inconvenient to my incumbency. I have a pension to think about."

The other hilarious thing about Valadez's argument locally is that at the same time, Democrats were pissing all over for "communities of interest" statewide to gain the upper hand in congressional redistricting. I was writing up the press releases about that at the time.

If Democrats wished, they could make the Republican districts much more competitive by moving Democrats in and Republicans out of Districts 1 and 4. The downside for the party in charge is any map that does that means Democrats would be shipped out of their own districts and Republicans would be shipped in. They might have to work for re-election even after the Summer Olympics.

Partisan tug-o-war

Packing Republicans into their own districts means no unanimous vote for sales taxes when shaming is involved. So what's Plan B?

Is there a deal to be had? During the late 1990s, Republican Mike Boyd supported a sales tax. The Boyd-style moderate Republicans in local politics has gone the way of the starry night at Li'l Abners.

A sales tax proposal in 1997 foundered on the no vote of ex-Supervisor Ray Carroll.

Still, current District 4 Republican Steve Christy deserves credit for entertaining the idea. Diversifying the revenue stream makes sense. It's an easy financial argument to make. When Democrats moved to protect social programs from a commensurate cut in property taxes, Christy withdrew his support.

Elias, worried ever-ramping sales taxes will hurt the poor sought the social services concession. Moving left proved movement a bit too far away from the right. What District 5 voters need is incompatible with what District 4 voters won't allow and vice versa. That makes compromise impossible.

Even with Christy's tepid support, Republican Ally Miller was still a "no" and she hasn't made a point of playing well with others because her voters don't want her to play nice. And the other supervisors have little incentive to even listen to her.

Laying down the law

Could Pima County get the state law changed? Maybe. A bill to allow the county to levy a sales tax without a unanimous vote died in the Legislature this year.

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On the merits, a sales tax is in the Legislature's wheelhouse.

The Republicans who own the State House prefer sales taxes to property or income taxes because taxing consumption is more neutral and doesn't take from investment or success. So it's doable — if it weren't seen as a special favor for Pima County.

The Legislature and Pima County aren't exactly on good terms and the only county that hasn't mustered the unanimous vote so far is ours. The other counties did it before the partisanship for partisanship's sake was this rancid.

Injecting any sort of partisanship, or threatening Miller with until-now-unseen voter thirst for higher sales taxes may be counter-productive. Miller is much more in line with the conservatives in Legislature. Unless Pima County wants to make the dubious gamble that Miller is too out there for state lawmakers.

Good governance meets clear politics

A sales tax for road repair makes all the sense in the world because diversifying the tax base is just smart fiscal policy. It lets the county bet long on economic growth while property taxes hedge against recessions blunting economic activity.

It's good governance.

Try to shame Republicans into voting for a tax increase and the shame will get lost in translation. Conservative partisans won't see intransigence as an affront to good governance. They'll see only their champion standing up to the Democrats and the media. Republicans aren't being dishonest.

If Republicans have been very clear about just one thing, it's that they see taxes as just this side of theft.

Democrats want safe districts. So they create safe Republican districts. A sales tax requires a unanimous vote. The former precludes the latter.

It's been said communities and nations get the government they deserve. Maybe that's true. Maybe it's not. In Pima County, Democrats get the partisanship they design.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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have your say   

3 comments on this story

Jun 7, 2018, 7:02 am
-0 +0

Pamela Powers Hannley, conservative???  Total whack job.

Randy Friese - semi-sane, but not even close to being a conservative.

He may have gotten some play before gerrymandering, but she wouldn’t have made it out of a primary, in fact, probably wouldn’t even gotten enough signatures to be on the ballot.

Jun 6, 2018, 9:14 am
-0 +0

What is “Indepemdent One” even talking about? The LD9 he describes has not existed since 2002. With two notable exceptions in the wake of the Mecham impeachment (1990), it always elected Republicans, including some quite conservative ones.

I cannot for the life of me figure out which district he is describing here. I have never heard any member of the legislature praise Venezuela.

Jun 1, 2018, 11:20 pm
-0 +0

Actions have consequences.  The “Independent” Redistricting Committee did that to the old LD9 a few years ago.  LD9 was a moderate Republican/Democrat District fairly evenly split so that we always sent moderates to Phoenix, quite often a split ticket (Al Melvin doesn’t count).  They gerrymandered the area to make 2 safe Democratic Districts, and so now we send a woman who looks to Venezuela as inspiration, and an otherwise semi-sane individual who has positions which do not represent the majority of his district.  Which means neither of them get the time of day in the legislature.

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Paying for road repairs is a heavy lift for the Pima County Board of Supervisors.