County's cash-for-vote deal uncommon in government

Arizona Republic
Tuesday, December 11, 2001
Tom Zoellner

Maricopa County's offer to pay the state $30 million in exchange for new tax referendums is a deal that appears to be without recent precedent in American governmental history.

The county is offering to help Arizona with its deficit crisis with a one-time gift of $30 million. In exchange, it wants permission from the state to ask voters to extend a one-fifth of a cent jail tax to the year 2027, as well as a sales tax referendum to fund a new hospital district and integrated health care system.

"I have never heard of anything like it happening in Arizona, or anywhere else," said Tanis Salant, director of the Institute for Local Government at the University of Arizona. "It's very unique."

The trade-off inserted into the budget passed by the House last week is a rare case of public money flowing up instead of down in the governmental hierarchy.

Though the pact faces scrutiny from Senate budget negotiators, it could become enshrined in state law without ever being voted upon by county supervisors.

"You'd have to look far and wide for an example of a local government writing checks to the state out of the goodness of their heart," said Kevin McCarthy, executive director of the Arizona Tax Research Association, who opposes the swap. "Significant public policy is being forged here without the debate that should go along with it."

Maricopa County Administrator David Smith said the money would come out of several building projects that would have to be delayed indefinitely. They include a 23-story county administrative tower at Jefferson Street and Sixth Avenue, a sheriff's training facility, a new health department building and some land acquisition in the southeast part of the county.

Such a contract would have been unthinkable eight years ago when Maricopa County was mired in a financial crisis of its own, with a $65 million deficit. But a combination of strong fiscal discipline and a reluctance to incur bond debt has put the county back in the black and ready to come to the state with cash in exchange for locally oriented legislation.

The proposed arrangement highlights the role of Arizona's 15 counties as essentially subagencies of the state, without the charter or authority to pass major ordinances or levy taxes without state approval.

Only 135 of the 3,066 counties in the United States have charters that allow them to function as independent governmental bodies. A referendum vote to give Maricopa County a "home rule" charter was defeated by a 3-2 margin in 1996.

"We are at the mercy of the Legislature," said Janice Brewer, chairwoman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. "They can take $30 million out of our hide one way or another, so we might as well give it to them."

The $30 million offer is roughly equivalent to a suggested 4 percent reduction in revenue-sharing dollars that had been proposed by Gov. Jane Hull. That idea died for lack of support.

Agreeing to a revenue-sharing cut is a far more typical way for a local government to help a state climb out of a deficit, according to Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C.

He said the arrangement between Maricopa County and the state appeared to be unprecedented.

"I don't know of any situation where a county has actually sent money to a state," he said.

But county supervisors are expecting to get much more in the long run from an extended jail tax to cover the estimated $80 million annually it will cost to house and feed more than 8,000 inmates. The current jail tax, approved in 1998, is scheduled to run out in six years.

"In these hard times the economy has put us in to, we have to come up with creative strategies," Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox said.

The cash-for-legislation deal would also signal the imminent creation of a new Public Health Services District to take the management of Maricopa Medical Center out of the county's operating budget.

The supervisors now have the power to raise taxes for a health services district by a simple majority vote, but the new legislation would insulate them from this politically controversial move by authorizing a referendum instead.