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What the Devil won't tell you

Pima County, TUSD to fight Az's latest shifty euphemism for tax hike

Redefining taxation seems to be a trend in a state long bent on strangling government revenue

Back in the heady #RedForEd teacher walkout, the state Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey approved a teacher raise that included an almost certainly illegal tax increase on Tucson homeowners.

The county and Tucson Unified School District are suing the state over the matter, just like I told you they would in a column back in May.

I'm no genius. I just know my both my alphabet and Arabic numbers. 

What I find most interesting though is how Ducey and lawmakers seem to be redefining the meaning of "tax." No euphemism is safe from the state's quest for "additive fiscal policy" as the politicians in no way want that evil T-word to pop into voters' heads.

Could it be that state leaders have reached tax-cut bottom and we are suddenly craving nutrients? They are sure acting like it just dawned on them that there's a cost to the sort of civilization that most voters seem to insist upon. "Lord of the Flies" was a good book but hardly a lifestyle choice.

Of mice and Acme rockets

Let's start with what must be an illegal tax. If a state passes a law and the result is that I pay more in taxes as a result, then that’s a tax hike. A two-thirds supermajority requirement to impose said tax is right there in the state Constitution. It's right where conservatives put it back in 1992. In Arizona, the Legislature can’t do the former without the latter. Period. Full stop. Hit send. 

On the other hand, chablis-sipping Republicans back in 1980 installed a constitutional limit on what homeowner could pay in property taxes and agreed that the state would pick up the rest.

The previous two paragraphs don’t always gel because politically savvy local leaders game the discrepancy. They can raise taxes and have the Legislature pick up some or all of it but only if property taxes break the 10 percent threshold.

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The right hates, despises, loathes this loophole they created through simple ignorance. What’s even worse is that those damned empathetic, migrant-loving liberals living in Tucson Unified School District would dare end-run them.

In 2015, state leadership tried to take a whack at the whole subsidy system in a convoluted taxing scheme that resembled a game of Mouse Trap. They tried to argue that they didn’t raise the tax. The boot kicked the barrel, which tipped over and the BB crisscrossed down the stairs, hit the pole and the cage just dropped. Ducey just turned the wheel that started the process, and therefore did not poach the mouse.

The law capped the state subsidy at $1 million and the rest would fall on the local government. An obscure state real estate board got tasked with deciding who paid what and — shocker — Pima County took the hammer's ball and peen. 

The courts said nice try, bite us; don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya.

Last spring, Ducey and the lawmakers tempted the courts with a similar scheme aimed again at TUSD. Apparently they missed the multiple precedents set in Wile E. Coyote v. The Roadrunner, et. al., beep, beep and think the Acme rocket will do the trick this time.

They get a half-beat sneaky and it’s taxes so it’s convoluted. I’ll try to type slowly.

The state subsidizes homeowner’s taxes if their total property tax bill exceeds 1 percent of the assessed value of a home. That’s all the taxing jurisdictions combined: city, county, school districts and community colleges. In other words, your total tax bill can’t exceed a single point on what the county says your home is worth.

But your tax bill is split into two categories. Primary taxes pay for upkeep, salaries and daily operations. The secondary property tax pays for special districts voters create and bonds voters approve. That part doesn’t count toward the 1 percent.

So the Legislature shifted desegregation funds from the primary tax eligible for the subsidy to the secondary, which is not.

The tax rates set inside TUSD's boundaries are above the 1 percent limit. So the result of that shift is a new $8 million tax on county homeowners. Now a lawsuit follows.

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The original plan was to have Pima County trigger a lawsuit by TUSD but the thinking has since changed to a legal partnership.

If turning the handle to set in motion the events that made the boot kick the barrel was an illegal taking of a mouse, then what happens when they just stomp the damned rodent with their heel? Smart — or reasonably sentient — money will be on the locals prevailing.

Tax hike. Cue “We are the Champions” for the inevitable victory because the only way the state can win is if it proves the scheme was approved by two-thirds of the Legislature (it wasn't) or that compelling people to pay more taxes isn't a tax increase.

You say potato, I say 'convenience fee'

That lot up in Phoenix have been doing this a lot lately. 

Last year, the Legislature increased the fee for vehicle registration by $32. Well, they outsourced the exact figure, to pretend it isn't a "tax," but the result of some back-of-the-napkin figuring by a bureaucrat means you'll end up shelling out more for each vehicle you own.

That would be a tax to me. The state passes a law and you pay more so the state has more money. Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

At the time, Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said not so. He uttered words as a flack that he would have laughed at back when he was a journalist.

"This is not a tax," said Scarpinato, who is now the governor's chief of staff. "We see it as a user fee. ... There's a clear distinction."

Daniel, don't make it so easy.

I know Scarp, and like Scarp so I’m willing to flesh out how he might not be full of it. Some of us don’t have cars, therefore the fee is not a tax because we can get by without paying it. It’s why tuition increases aren’t tax increases. No one says Arizonans have to go to college. Fees are required but compulsory because the root activity isn't mandatory.

On the other hand, where is it written that Arizonans have to be homeowners. Feel free to rent. So property taxes are just real property convenience fees, right?

Tempting Grover

Also this year, Ducey included in his budget some changes to the tax code that will raise revenue by switching numbers around to mirror changes to the Trump tax cut (insomuch as The Donald had anything to do with it other than not effing it up).

Just so happens that those changes include cutting deductions in a way that will net the state an extra $180 million a year. When the feds do this sort of thing they total up the number over 10 years. So has Ducey just raised taxes by $2 billion dollars?

No, no, no. They’re just changing the income tax to give the state more money. A tax hike is something else entirely, they would have us believe. Plus, no one says you have to have a job. So call it an income privilege assessment. Or a survive-'n-stuff surcharge.

This last one has caught the eye of anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. Norquist is something of a relic from a simpler time. He was the guy who’s “no-tax” pledge was compulsory for Republicans seeking office before the requirement was unconditional and full-throated defense of Donald J. Trump.

Norquist is calling this a tax and is revving up his relevance by challenging Ducey, so we'll see how he does now challenged by a grizzled old giant. Aren't second terms fun, Doug?

Hypotenuses are real

A theme to this column is shite costs money. I’m sorry. I wish it didn’t. I with we could just hire a genie to blink civilization into existence. We can’t. That advanced economy y’all grew up in was paid for by other people so you could enjoy it. Now it’s your turn.

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In Arizona, state leaders have for 27 years been dancing to the tune of tax cuts, tax cuts and more tax cuts. It started with the election of J. Fife Symington in 1990 and it even carried through the Janet Napolitano years.

Who wouldn’t want to run on a tax cut? Who would want to run on a tax increase?

During Ducey’s first term, there haven’t been the kind of honking tax cuts Arizonans used to get them every single year. A phased reduction of the corporate tax approved during Jan Brewer's tenure was allowed to take effect. Aside from that it's been nip and tuck, like a 2015 reduction of $31 million in income taxes and a year later an $8 million additional business tax cut.

Mostly, they are looking for new ways to raise money without anyone figuring out they are paying more. They kind of have to.

Roads? Schools? Jails? Water? It all requires money.

Erosion? Inflation? Wear and tear?  None of this is fake news. 

Arizona may have just run out of tax cut runway because someone has to pay to resurface said "runway."

So state elected leaders are figuring out how to kinda, sorta, not really but absolutely raise more money in ways they can defend as “not a tax.”

Look, just because this is funny and oh so mockable by a smartass like yours truly, doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. We have state leaders who are acknowledging cause and effect. They aren’t just indulging in action following urge. Cool. Welcome to reality, people. Check out the Pythagorean Theorem so long as you are there. And while you get your hypotenuse on, climate change is real. We’ll get you to Darwin slowly.

Scuse me for a sec though, while I go in the other room and ROTF and LMFAO.

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

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1 comment on this story

Dec 29, 2018, 10:01 am
-0 +0

“The art of taxation consists of so plucking the goose as to acquire the greatest amount of feathers with the least amount of hissing.” - Jean Baptiste Cobert, Finance Minister to Louis XIV.  Can’t blame the Republicans ... oh wait, yes.  Yes, we can!

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