The first thing that needs to be observed about the demise of the transportation sales tax initiative is that it represents an astonishing debacle for Gov. Janet Napolitano’s political operation.
The transportation sales tax, along with an initiative to preserve state trust lands, were to be Napolitano’s legacy markers.
They were largely her creations. She negotiated the policy and political deals that formed the initiatives.
The failure to get them to the ballot resulted from almost a comedy of errors. The initiative drives were launched too late in the political season. Management was turned over to political consultants loyal to Napolitano but with scant experience in ballot measure campaigns.
Given the tightness of time, standard verification checks appear to have been skipped or done shoddily. Then the Democrat’s legal A-team for election issues missed a filing deadline to challenge invalidations by the Secretary of State’s Office.
Make no mistake about it: Napolitano still rules the political roost in Arizona. Still, this is a big and should be a deeply embarrassing failure.
Not being able to get legacy markers to the ballot shouldn’t happen to a politician of Napolitano’s stature and clout.
Rather than blame events, surprising legal requirements or others, there should be some soul-searching in Napolitano- land.
Substantively, however, the demise of the transportation sales tax initiative is a very good thing. This was a monumentally bad transportation finance plan. Its demise provides the opportunity to start over and do transportation finance right, if anyone has the inclination to do so.
Rather than being based on the prioritization of transportation needs and sound transportation finance principles, this initiative was based upon a series of political calculations.
The first political calculation was about what revenue source would be politically the easiest and how much could voters be persuaded to pony up? The answer was a one-cent increase in the state sales tax.
After that, the allocation of the money wasn’t driven by transportation needs, but stitching together the political coalitions necessary to get it passed.
As a result, huge pots of money were simply given over to local governments throughout the state to do with pretty much whatever they want. Another big pot was set aside for environmental stuff.
While some highway improvements have been specified, most of the money was designated for stuff that hasn’t even been fully conceptualized, such as passenger rail, or without any specificity at all, such as the local subventions.
Here are what would be some elements of a sensible approach:
• First, there shouldn’t be a statewide proposal. Whenever there is one, the urban areas end up heavily subsidizing the rural areas.
In this transportation proposal, for example, rural areas were to receive nearly 40 percent of the funding even though they constitute less than a quarter of the state’s population.
Yes, urban residents use roads statewide and some degree of subsidization is probably in order. But that should be discussed separately, not as a political price of admission to get the funds the urban areas want to devote to their own transportation improvements.
• Second, transportation needs should be considered separately rather than all together in one comprehensive package. Lower priority items shouldn’t be permitted to free ride on higher priority items. Each should stand on its own merits to justify its funding.
• Third, no funding commitments to projects until there are specific proposals to consider. Passenger rail may very well be an important transportation option for the future and funding to study and develop a specific proposal would be in order. This transportation proposal committed nearly $7 billion to building passenger rail when there is no specific proposal on the table.
• Fourth, to the extent possible, keep to the concept of user pays, at least for roads. Many of the major new highway improvements needed are to connect developing nodes with the already developed urban areas.
That’s a situation where toll roads, or benefit districts or impact fees are highly appropriate. This transportation proposal jumped instantly to the sales tax, which should be the last rather than the first resort.
Existing funding sources probably can’t get the job done for Arizona’s transportation future. However, a rigorous evaluation needs to take place about how existing funds are being used and how far reprioritization could take us.
There is, however, a right way and a wrong way to go about transportation finance. The right way is more painstaking than trying to calibrate the politics of raising a big pot of money for purposes to be decided later.
But it would be fairer and cheaper to taxpayers, and do more to actually improve transportation.
Robert Robb, an Arizona Republic columnist, writes about public policy and politics in Arizona. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org