'Balanced, regional opportunity' - I feel it in my wallet

The Arizona Republic
Saturday, October 23, 2004
Laurie Roberts

It is, we are told, a "balanced regional approach." A "rare opportunity."

I don't know about you, but whenever the power set tells me I have a "rare opportunity" I reach for my wallet - mostly to see if it's still there.

It seems our leaders approach the public pocketbook as a starving man approaches an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Actually, I understand that cravings for cash gnaw at the stomach of every self-respecting politician. But I wonder if we will ever satisfy their appetite for our money.

Last year, we raised taxes in Maricopa County to bail out the county health system. At the request of our leaders, we established a new property tax, agreeing to pay an extra $40 million a year.

Apparently, that was the signal to storm the smorgasbord.

Take Scottsdale. This year, the city has hit up its voters for two new sales taxes and its school board is asking for a record $217 million on Nov. 2 to fix high schools. There is talk of an override in the spring to get money for all-day kindergarten and a bond vote in the fall to get money for computers and maybe a second bond to get money to build a new high school in this district, where enrollment is declining.

The bingeing isn't just in Scottsdale.

On Nov. 2, the community colleges are asking voters for nearly $1 billion in new property taxes; the mayors want $15.8 billion in sales taxes for transportation.

"Because the current transportation tax is due to expire next year, Maricopa County voters have a rare opportunity to reaffirm their support for an improved transportation system and less congestion," the Arizona Chamber of Commerce says.

Actually, I thought I reaffirmed my support for an improved transportation system every time I pay gas taxes and vehicle license fees, which traditionally fund such things. But not here. Not any more.

Nineteen years ago, the Valley didn't have a freeway system and so voters sensibly imposed a 20-year sales tax to jumpstart construction. Of course, it is an immutable law of government that taxes are never allowed to actually expire. And so we are presented with Proposition 400.Unfortunately for taxpayers, it's no mere meal. It's a gorgefest that'll pay for freeways and transit, yes - and so much more.

Since when is it the county taxpayers' responsibility to pay $554 million to fix Mesa's aging streets, as Proposition 400 would do? Or to pay $57.7 million for a tunnel under Scottsdale's airport? A tunnel Scottsdale leaders have long wanted, by the way, just not badly enough to build it with their own money. But that's how it works with a "balanced regional approach."

It's code for "come and get it."

Which might explain Proposition 401, the community college bond proposal. The money it would raise amounts to $14,000 for every full-time student, according to the Arizona Tax Research Association. This, compared with $9,000 per student in the bonding request that passed 10 years ago.

But that's OK, we're told, because community colleges transform lives, as if that alone explains why they need $1 billion.

I have no doubt that the community colleges transform lives and that they need more money. But it would be nice to know how much transformation we could get for say, $700 million. It would be nice to know how much of what we're being asked to pay for is really needed and how much is just larded on to grease the vote.

It would be nice if just once as they belly up to the banquet table, our leaders had to choose between the chicken and the beef instead of ordering both, with a thick slab of ribs on the side.