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What the Devil won't tell you

The 4-1-1 on Tucson's Prop. 411 sales tax election

The damnedest thing happened when I opened up my election guide to check out the pro and con arguments relating to Prop. 411, a continuation of a 2017 half-cent sales tax increase to fund improvements to Tucson's streets.

No one paid the fee required to offer an argument against the proposal, which voters will decide on May 17. Not a single one is included.

Really, Pima GOP? Five years ago, y'all basically kicked a decent City Council candidate in Gary Watson straight out of the party and refused to endorse the firefighter when he supported the ballot proposition that raised taxes for streets in the first place.

That was when the plan included 60 percent spending on public safety. Not even a tax hike to buy police cruisers and fire trucks could pass Republican muster. This one is a 10-year tax that will spend $600 million on what GOPers figure to be local boondoggles and $150 million on emasculating projects like sidewalks and bike lanes.

The feminization of Tucson continues. Quick, Republicans, go out and buy some testicular tanning lasers and save our collective manhood.

I mean, I can come up with two arguments against Prop. 411 and I'm "the liberal media."

I guess y'all can't be bothered to take a stand that isn't QAnon-sponsored, insurrectionist-driven, Tucker-approved and aimed right down the throats of transgender golfers. 

If Alex Jones didn't hallucinate it, it's not worth believing.

Ultimately, I come down in favor of 411 because on balance the measure makes sense. A smarter Tucson is a better Tucson so I'll put the proposal in fuller context.

It's not all upside.

Argument against Prop. 411

Prop. 411 is a tax increase — and one of the most regressive order to boot. 

Don't let anyone argue it's not.

Stuff will cost more if it passes than if it doesn't. That's a tax increase, period.

When a tax is scheduled to go away — and government proposes extending it — the argument goes that it's not a tax increase. Horse pucks.

A "yes" vote means higher prices than a "no" vote — end of story. Stop making faces, city leaders.

In 2017, voters approved a ballot measure raising the sales tax by a half percent for five years. The money was split with 60 percent paying for roads and 40 percent to buy gear for the police and fire departments.

That program ends June 30, with the current fiscal year. The sales tax will go way and the flow of money will disappear without voters agreeing to extend it.

The new plan is to keep the sales tax for another 10 years, raising $750 million, and the whole shebang will pay for road repairs and transportation improvements.

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Tucson has the 33rd highest sales tax in the country at 8.7 percent to fund a mix of government actions. The city ranked appreciably higher five years ago but a bunch of other cities moved to raise theirs above Tucson's.

Sales taxes are regressive because everyone pays the same rate regardless of wealth or income. 

The stuff government needs to do still costs money, but taxing the rich gets harder and harder because the rich don't like to be taxed. They spend a little bit (for them, a lot for us) to pay lawmakers to keep it that way.

I mean, clearly the tax system is unfair if an idle heir to a family fortune can only afford a 100-foot pleasure yacht and not 200-foot super yacht. That's a half-step away from internment camps. No justice, no peace!

It's not a huge tax increase, but Americans right now are wigging out over a half-point of monthly increase in inflation. I'm not going to do a whole inflation spiel right now (it's the U.S. Federal Reserves job to fix it, not Joe Biden's) but it's a real issue and a real problem for lower-income folks. 

Is this really the time to add more costs to Tucson-area families? We can do this later, maybe, when price spikes peter out.

That's argument one against.

Regional first

Here's argument two: The city initiative could muddle and befuddle an upcoming vote on re-authorizing the Regional Transportation Authority, set to expire in 2026.

Voters approved the RTA in 2006 to tackle transportation projects and planning across the region. That's smart.

Governments should approach transportation needs in a regional manner because the whole Tucson-area transportation system should fit together.

First come up with a regional plan as to how more than 1 million people will move around and through town. Then, the Tucson City Council can use the $750 million to fill in the gaps.

I worry that when the next RTA (or RTANext, as it is being marketed already) comes before voters, a lot of folks in Tucson will say "wait, didn't we already do that with Prop. 411?"

I will try to explain, no, this is different — but unfortunately my column is not mandatory reading for all Tucson voters. I think it's a reasonable restriction on voting rights but others disagree.

Low-information voters can be too busy to take a slide rule and protractor to each ballot measure. They may not get the difference and vote no. Tucson will no doubt provide the bulk of the countywide "yes" vote on another round of RTA funding. If Tucson votes no, the regional approach probably dies.

I can't say for sure the confusion isn't kinda intentional.

The Tucson City Council is in a tiff with the rest of the RTA over proportional voting. Council members argue Tucson should have more than the same single vote that Oro Valley or the Pascua Yaqui have in deciding what money gets spent on which projects.

It's a reasonable point, but it doesn't match political reality because the Legislature will not allow Tucson to dictate to other jurisdictions (read, Republican-heavy suburbs) within the RTA.

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The city and RTA have kind of kissed and made up, but it was a kiss on the cheek with a quick turn and walk.

The Tucson Council appeared to be giving a tiny extended middle finger to the RTA when it put Prop. 411 on the ballot for a May election. The measure isn't a total effort to sabotage a future RTA election but Council members seemed OK if that's what happens after not getting a bigger say in how the region plans for transportation.

I smell unhelpful pettiness.

When neighboring governments attack each other, the people are helped not a whit.

There, Pima County Republicans. I did your work for you. Unfortunately for tax-a-phobes, there's more to the story.

On the other hand 

Political issues of the fact-based world are rarely all right or all wrong. The city sales tax extension is probably a 70-30 proposition leaning toward a "yes" vote.

The work it will pay for is work that needs to be done, regardless of the next RTA election.

Regional transportation planning and local street repairs are two different jobs. 

Regional planning often involves more of a long-term effort to connect major arterials.

Think the North Thornydale Road to South Alvernon Road corridor.

Starting at Interstate 10 on the South Side, South Alvernon runs north-south as a four-to-six-lane, divided thoroughfare straight through Tucson and up to East River Road, which is also four-to-six lanes of divided thoroughfare before running into North Thornydale which is the same.

It connects Tucson's South Side to Marana in lieu of a freeway and it was designed to be that way. 

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Driving it, the whole thing feels like the same road even if it's name changes and it passes through Tucson, unincorporated Pima County and Marana. If those jurisdictions planned at cross purposes, the route would bottle neck and expand repeatedly.

Mass transit fits into the lexicon of "regional planning" because connecting Oro Valley and Sahuarita to Downtown Tucson requires regional thinking. Otherwise, the area might end up with a $180 million modern street car connecting the University of Arizona to Sentinel Peak. I mean c'mon ... wait ... we did that? Never mind.

And that was part of the RTA ... sooo ... RTAs aren't perfect.

Rust still never sleeps

Tucson's streets are in bad shape. 

One estimate defines 85 percent of Tucson streets in bad or failing condition. 

Widening Grant Road won't do a thing to address the condition of Sparkman Boulevard or Goyette Avenue, which cross that main drag.

The whole region fell behind in basic street maintenance during the Great Recession, when revenues shriveled up across local governments. 

Wear, tear and erosion happen. None of it is a plot to take guns away.

When streets aren't maintained, they can require resurfacing and that's a lot more expensive. When resurfacing is ignored, the streets can require reconstruction and holy mother of Ina is that expensive.

All local governments should include a dedicated and untouchable fund for street maintenance that can't be touched. That's exactly what this sales tax does. The fund is voter approved and can't be raided for other expenses. 

Yeah, the tax is regressive but state law and Tucson's own Charter clamp down on what the city can raise by way of property taxes. Local income taxes are an option in some states, but not Arizona.

City governments in Arizona are just dependent on sales taxes. It's how things work. Don't like it? Change the Legislature. Sit out elections because Democratic presidents disappoint and this is what we get.

Impressive coalition

I began with the absence of a "no" argument in the Election Guide. I should point out the coalition supporting Prop. 411.

Tucson Electric Power and the Sierra Club both penned arguments in favor. The proposition is supported by the Tucson Police Officers Association and highly progressive Supervisor Matt Heinz. Mayor Regina Romero and the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce are in agreement.

If community leaders who often fight each other come together and say "this is worthy," then odds are the proposition has something going for it.

The only tautology is nothing is for certain so sometimes everyone can be wrong. See: Streetcar, modern (I know, I know, it's very cool but is it really worth nearly two F-35's?).

In this case, the coalition is basically right because Tucson streets need to be fixed and Prop. 411 is how it gets done.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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1 comment on this story

Apr 27, 2022, 7:30 pm
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I’d way way way rather have 100 streetcar lines than one more F-35.  Just sayin.

Love your writing.

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Road work in early March on East Ft. Lowell Road.


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