The Road to Hell is Paved

It's relatively easy to turn a "2" into a "4" on a piece of paper. Mark Killian thinks he can do the same thing with Arizona law.

Four years ago state lawmakers agreed to let Maricopa County voters decide whether to impose a temporary half-cent sales tax to fund freeway construction. The measure, which was approved, was supposed to raise $5.7 billion over its twenty-year life.

Killian, a Mesa Republican representative, wants to extend that tax to forty years. And, with a neat bit of legislative sleight of hand, his proposal would have this occur without asking the voters who approved the levy in the first place.

He doesn't see anything unfair about it. In fact, Killian says extending the tax is the only fair thing to do for the East Valley. And he says he and other East Valley residents will be more willing to support the upcoming $5.8 billion bond election for mass transit if they are assured there also will be more money for the freeways.

The 1985 vote was designed to fund construction of freeways throughout the metropolitan area. A small section of the Agua Fria Freeway through Peoria already is open and construction is proceeding on several others.

Officials at the Arizona Department of Transportation acknowledge that sales-tax revenues have not been coming in as fast as anticipated. But they still believe there will be enough money by 2005 to build the entire 230-plus-mile system. Talk of extending the tax, they say, is "premature."

For Killian, the issue is not limited to the lower-than-anticipated sales-tax revenues. He points out that some of the freeways already under construction have been changed from their original plans. "They have added so many interchanges and depressed freeways that the cost has gone up," he complains. And he sees each dollar that goes into a redesigned freeway in the Phoenix area as one less dollar available for the East Valley.

Nonsense, responds Mark Bonan, spokesman for the state transportation department.

Yes, he concedes, there are a lot of "bells and whistles" sought for the freeways. And, he continues, if all of those enhancements are built, the total price tag for the system will balloon to $6.4 billion.

And, yes, the original $5.7 billion price tag was based on the assumption that sales-tax revenues would increase 11.4 percent each year. In fact, the actual increase is closer to 5 percent.

And, finally, it is the East Valley freeways that are at the bottom of the priority list and will be completed last.

But don't worry, Bonan insists.
"What we're saying is we're going to put a road there," Bonan says of those last segments, like the east leg of the Santan Freeway from Gilbert Road to the Superstition Freeway. "The question is whether it will meet the expectations of the dreamers. We can't guarantee that."

He says that means some freeways may not be six or eight lanes wide but instead only four lanes. Killian is not reassured by that. What particularly galls him is that he believes it was a strong pro-tax turnout by East Valley voters that helped secure approval of the freeway plan for the entire county. (The bond issue, which passed by a margin of more than 2-1 countywide, tallied margins of more than 5-1 in some East Valley precincts. In Killian's own precinct, however, while voters approved the freeway plan, it was by a margin somewhat smaller than the countywide average.)

If that's the case, why not allow voters to decide whether to extend the tax? Killian says he isn't necessarily opposed to a public vote, but he admits he is concerned that some people who voted for the freeway system the first time around might not go back to the polls for a repeat performance. Says Killian: "People may say to themselves, `We've got ours and the hell with you,' and the East Valley is out there holding the empty bag."

Killian's plan isn't being enthusiastically received by some of his Republican colleagues who supported the original legislation to allow the twenty-year sales-tax increase.

"Over my dead body," blurts out Scottsdale Republican Representative Jim Skelly. "They can't do that. It's unconstitutional."

Tucson Representative Jack Jewett also questions whether lawmakers legally could tell voters that the twenty-year tax they approved would now be a forty-year tax. Jewett--a Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee--also considers it political suicide. "I'd be very sensitive about changing what the people have voted on," he says. "I want no part of that."

Of course, this wouldn't be the first time that lawmakers have advertised one thing and done something else.

In 1983 state legislators enacted a "temporary" one-cent increase in the state sales tax to make up for a budget deficit. That boost, unlike the freeway levy, did not require voter approval.

The very next year lawmakers decided that the state really couldn't live without the extra money that was collected. Legislators wrung their hands and said the increase was just inevitable and there was nothing they could do about it. All of them, that is, except Burton Barr, who was majority leader of the House of Representatives at the time. Asked after a speech about what happened to the "temporary" nature of the tax, Barr responded simply, "I lied." (Yes, that "temporary" tax is still in effect six years later.) WHILE YOU'RE STUCK IN TRAFFIC . . . While the legislators wrestle with balancing the budget, prison overcrowding and freeway construction, two of them have noticed that people are spending more time stuck in traffic. And they want to do something about what those seething motorists are reading.

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