As Jerry Colangelo's major league baseball bandwagon rolls on, seemingly unabated, a small pack of stadium-tax foes continues to give chase, yelping like bloodthirsty poodles.
Now, however, one segment of the opposition wants to wage economic warfare.
A group known as Taxpayers Against Corporate Welfare has announced a sales-tax boycott of Maricopa County businesses during the weekend of February 25 and 26.
The group is angry that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors bypassed the voters in approving a quarter-cent sales tax to raise $238 million for a retractable-roof stadium downtown, then effectively blocked political and legal action aimed at rescinding the tax.
"The only option left to us is to simply take the tax revenue on big-ticket items out of Maricopa County," says Ernest Hancock, treasurer of the taxpayer group and county chair of the Libertarian party.
Hancock says the sales-tax boycott will show businesses what they can expect if a baseball expansion team is awarded to Phoenix and the sales tax kicks in.
Hancock says the February 25 and 26 boycott is specifically aimed at car dealers, who possess substantial political clout. If car dealers see that they stand to lose business, he theorizes, the Board of Supervisors might be convinced to rethink the sales tax.
Hancock says the tax on a new car makes it worth the consumer's time and money to travel to another county. The sales tax in Phoenix is 6.8 percent, and would go to 7.05 percent if the stadium levy kicks in. By comparison, Flagstaff and Prescott levy 6.5 percent sales taxes, while Tucson charges 7 percent and Casa Grande 7.5 percent. If the stadium levy were in effect today, a buyer would save $137.50 if he purchased a $25,000 vehicle in Flagstaff or Prescott rather than Phoenix.
"Not only will an individual save money in other counties, they'll be doing a great service and making a statement by keeping the revenue out of the stadium district's hands," he says.
Mary Jo Heck, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Automobile Dealers Association, says Hancock's group is misguided. If a boycott gains widespread support, vital services that rely on sales taxes--services like police and fire protection--would suffer, she says. Not to mention car dealers and their commissioned sales staffs.
"We just feel that their efforts, while they might mean well, may end up missing their target," Heck says, adding that her group has taken no position on the stadium sales tax.
Colangelo declined to comment.
The Board of Supervisors, sitting as the county stadium district board, voted 3-1 on February 17, 1994, to impose the quarter-cent stadium tax. Polls conducted just before the vote indicated that nearly two-thirds of county residents opposed the stadium tax. Still, supervisors Ed King, Mary Rose Wilcox and Jim Bruner voted for the tax. Supervisor Tom Rawles voted against it. Supervisor Betsey Bayless abstained because she held interest in property inside the stadium district.
If a baseball franchise is not awarded to Phoenix by April 1, authorization for the levy will expire. Colangelo, who heads an investment group expected to pay up to $150 million to major league baseball for a franchise, has repeatedly stated that Phoenix will be awarded a franchise before April 1.
A measure approved by the Arizona State Legislature in 1990 allowed for creation of the special stadium district and the levying of the tax. That bill was written after Phoenix voters in 1989 overwhelmingly rejected a property-tax boost to build a stadium.
Since the supervisors approved the stadium tax, attempts to overturn it have gone nowhere. The Sun City Taxpayers Association tried to start a referendum, but county officials refused to accept its filings. The group then sued to force a referendum, but Superior Court Judge Marilyn Riddel dismissed the lawsuit as frivolous.
Despite rosy baseball pronouncements in the daily press (Phoenix Newspapers Inc., which publishes the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette, would be a major investor in the franchise), opposition to the sales tax continues to simmer. Efforts persist on several fronts to undo the tax.
Taxpayers Against Corporate Welfare was rebuffed in an effort to launch an initiative to place a tax on purchases at the stadium, with proceeds going to repay the county. Hancock says he attempted to file an application for an initiative with the Maricopa County Clerk's Office on February 3, but that Fran McCarroll, clerk of the board, refused to accept the filing.
McCarroll refused to comment, referring questions to assistant chief county counsel Jessica Funkhouser. Funkhouser says she advised the clerk not to accept the application because of Riddel's earlier ruling on the referendum drive. "We litigated the twin brother of this in the Sun City Taxpayers Association case," Funkhouser says, adding that the state constitution provides "no right of initiative or referendum in that special district."
Hancock has a different explanation: "It's called corruption."
Hancock says his group is considering filing another lawsuit over the county's refusal to allow an initiative, which he views as unconstitutional. Meanwhile, in the legislature, Representative Marilyn Jarrett has introduced a bill that would create a lien on the baseball franchise and levy a 20 percent tax on anything sold at the stadium. Proceeds would go to retire the lien.
Jarrett, a Republican from east Mesa, says her bill was to go to committee on Valentine's Day. She was confident the bill--HB 2489, which had 12 co-sponsors--would "sail right through."
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Her stated goal: "Stop them from building the baseball stadium at taxpayer expense. I have had nothing but positive returns from people. . . . They're outraged over the sales tax."
Asked how she could overcome the political forces that aligned to create the tax levy in the first place, Jarrett responds, "You saw what happened to Jim Bruner, didn't you?" Bruner, the former county supervisor once considered a shoo-in for Congress, was drubbed in a Republican primary for a House seat. Jarrett believes Bruner's role in approving the stadium tax led to his political demise.
Finally, Richard Duncan is acting as his own attorney in a lawsuit he has filed to stop the stadium project. Duncan, who describes himself as "a professional indigent," filed a complaint alleging that the supervisors' vote to levy the tax should be voided because they had conflicts of interest. Specifically, he notes that Colangelo had worked on Supervisor Wilcox's campaign. Duncan also claims that the state constitution prohibited the supervisors from sitting as the stadium district while the county had a budget deficit.
Duncan, who used to run a roofing company, realizes that his is an uphill battle. "The only thing I can hope for is that this [lawsuit] might be the straw that breaks the camel's back," Duncan says. "It's wrong for them to tax the people without their consent.