Business leaders from around the state have taken the first step toward what one says will probably be a request for voters to raise their own gas or sales taxes — or both — to build more roads.
The group most immediately wants $500 million this year to accelerate road construction projects already approved by the state Transportation Board but, at current funding levels, are not scheduled for construction for years.
Marty Shultz, lobbyist for Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric utility, said funds could come from the proposal by Gov. Janet Napolitano to refinance the state’s existing highway debt over 30 years. Now such borrowing is statutorily limited to just 20 years.
But Roc Arnett, president of the East Valley Partnership, said that “is just a cotton-picking drop in the bucket.” He said Arizona is going to need $20 billion over the next two decades — if not more — to keep the state from falling into gridlock.
And while both said the new business coalition is willing to look at alternatives,
like toll roads, the only realistic way to raise that kind of money is higher taxes.
One plan would raise the state’s gasoline tax from its current 18-cents-per-gallon level. That has the advantage of being a “user fee,” with those who drive the most paying the most.
But it would take a 37-cent hike to raise a billion dollars a year.
The other main option is increasing the state’s 5.6 percent sales tax. While not a user fee, it raises a lot of money quickly: a penny hike would generate between $700 million and $1 billion, depending on whether the state shares the revenue collected with cities and counties, the way it does with existing collections.
Arnett said lawmakers would never approve a tax hike themselves. He said that’s why the business group wants legislators to put it on the 2008 ballot and give voters the final say. He added that it can be sold to voters as a “family values” measure.
“You want to be home to play Little League with Johnny and take Susie to ballet,” he said. The key, Arnett said, is convincing voters that time spent in traffic takes away from family time.
Arnett said that’s how voters in Salt Lake City were convinced to raise a tax for the light-rail system there.
The group of businesses and chambers of commerce already chose the name Transportation and Infrastructure Moving AZ’s Economy, or the TIME coalition.
But Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he would not even support having the Legislature vote to send the issue to voters.
“I took a ‘no new tax’ pledge,” he said. Gould said if business interests want to put the measure on the 2008 ballot “they can go out and get signatures.”