Taxing fraud: Tucson's illegal election is a shot at RTA extension

The Tucson City Council just voted unanimously to hold an illegal election.

And they meant to do it.

The Council decided to hold an Aug. 6 sales tax election with nary a peep from the individual members. It’s in direct violation of state law, which requires that local governments only put such tax increases to voters on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Meanwhile, the Council passed the resolution with nary a whisper of public debate.

This Council doesn’t order a pizza without first putting together a citizen’s committee to discuss toppings and hold multiple public hearings as to whether they want a side of bread for dunking. Forget about figuring out whether to get ranch or blue cheese.

So this isn’t what it appears to be. Or it’s exactly what it looks like.

(Quick point here: Since the vote earlier in the week, the Arizona
Legislature has moved the primary election up a week. So the Council
already has to reschedule the vote to July 30).

The Council doesn’t have to decide to hold an election that violates the law to get a court challenge going. They could ask for a declaratory judgment. So what gives?

I called every member of the Council, and only the dependable Paul Cunningham got back to me. The rest are staying far away. Even Steve Kozachik didn’t get back to me. Kozachik! The local media’s Rock of Gibraltar!

There’s a bit of a wall of silence meant to punctuate an action that should stand as its own statement.

Cunningham said the challenge to the state law was meant to gain clarity on when Tucson can hold what kind of elections. The plan, see, is to pick a fight with the state Legislature, which passed many years ago, a law forcing all local governments to restrict ballot measures raising local taxes to regular November elections.

“We’re trying to keep all of our options open,” Cunningham said. “The biggest thing is taking a look at how to run an election that makes sense for Tucson residents and Tucson government. We have to hold those things in balance.”

So what are they going to spend the money on? They don’t know but Cunningham pledges to be “as transparent as possible” when they figure it out.

Cunningham pointed to anticipated budget shortfalls landing squarely on Tucson’s bank accounts.

“This leaves us an option to fill gaps in funding that will potentially manifest themselves in the next two years because of the Leg flat tax and 27 million in (fiscal year 2025),” he said.

The state law has been in effect for 10 years. Why freak out now?

I stand by my first take on this spectral special election. It’s supposed to send a message to the Regional Transportation Authority Board: Play nice, or else.

 The board, which Tucson Mayor Regina Romero sits on along with representatives from all of the area towns and other governments, is putting together a plan to take to voters that would extend a region-wide half-cent sales tax to pay for another 20 years of transportation funding.

The Tucson City Council has been feeling that the other eight RTA jurisdictions are more than happy to take the city’s sales tax revenues but aren’t as eager to give Tucson a fair cut of the projects.

I’m not making a determination. I’m just saying that’s how they feel.

A sales-tax election would get the RTA’s attention as negotiations reach a critical point. That’s a reasonable explanation for this particular act of civil disobedience. The state law they are challenging has been around for 10 years. Had they been truly irked about it, they’d have taken the matter to the courts by now.

When I put that to Cunningham, he would only say, “Obviously it’s convenient to have this measure out there because it keeps our options open.”

Yeah, I’m sticking with my take that the Council is actually warning the RTA board not to mess with Tucson.

The RTA negotiations best explain why they are holding an illegal election in a challenge to a decade-old law that has hardly prevented the city from passing sales taxes to pay for roadwork, public safety and the Reid Park Zoo.

What? That election?

In 2026, the current round of RTA funding expires. 

If the Council can get that clarity Cunningham is talking about, it can jump in front of the RTA with its own city-only transportation election. Yes, they could put a plan together for November, but it would fall to the end of a very long ballot and get lost in the white noise of a presidential campaign.

The prospect of Tucson voters approving their own transportation tax would be a shot across the bow to the other eight jurisdictions making up the RTA. Tucson’s urban core of progressive voters would provide the bulk of the aye votes on a tax hike for roads. If Oro Valley and Sahuarita want a regional transportation plan, they best give Tucson what it wants.

Now this is me, having been around a while, just spitballing. Also, because I’ve been around a while I know Pima County supervisors and the other town councils would react badly to a direct threat like this, with Tucson saying “knuckle under or else.”

Tucson’s Council members know it’s best to have a regional election. It’s their preferred Plan A. So they don’t want to scuttle the process. They know they need some deniability about a shakedown that’s not really a shakedown but totally is.

Hence, the court challenge of Arizona Revised Statue 16-204. 

“What? Are we threatening you? Would we do that with a vague election? Oh, that’s just so we can get clarity on when to schedule an election that might or might not bigfoot all you other eight jurisdictions in the RTA. Not saying, just saying. You gonna eat that last doughnut?”

Of sharks and sea bass

Such a plan has the vibe of “an unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism.” 

This friendly neighborhood columnist has been arguing for a more direct approach. The RTA and the Council should hold a joint meeting so the Tucson electeds can make their rock-bottom demands known. 

Right now, Romero is left trying to move the process along and reconcile six councilmembers’ concerns, while trying to count to a four-vote majority and not sinking the “RTA Next” process over any particular gripe.

That’s not easy.

Don’t try to neutralize the antagonist with sharks or ill-tempered sea bass. No need for laser beams on their foreheads.

Just do it the old-fashioned way.

I stand by a column I wrote a year ago, arguing the Council and the RTA board should sit down and talk plainly about what each has gotta have and can’t do. Never mind that city businesses generate two-thirds of the sales tax revenues. That’s highly debatable because the customers come from everywhere. Tucson’s progressive voters will likely represent the margin of victory. That’s what Sahuarita and Marana have to remember. Tucson has a superior position in the talks because it will provide 60,000 aye votes in a November election. Only about 100,000 are necessary to re-up the half-cent sales tax.

Without Tucson voters, such an election would be much more likely to fail.

Also, screwing around with sales taxes may not be smart. Tucsonans are already paying 8.7 percent. If they hold a sales tax election and it gets tossed by a judge, people might think the tax passed. When time comes for another one, the voters will be like “What? Again? We just approved a sales tax.”

Do not underestimate how uninformed non-Sentinel-reading voters are right now. The operative cultural manuever is “news avoidance.” Yes, citizens are now openly bragging about how they are shirking their civic duty to stay informed about what their governments are doing.

So keep things simple when it comes to taxes.

If a problem needs addressing, just hold the sales tax election during a regular November city election — like the law says.

Democracy: Sometimes Dems lose

I can’t speak to the constitutionality of the law other than to point out that legislative attempts to micromanage Tucson elections have gone south before the courts. Elections in charter cities can be seen as a local concern, rather than the business of the Legislature up in Phoenix. 

If Tucson wants to hold partisan elections, it’s up to us. The state tried to stop it but the courts called it a local issue. Tucson holds all-mail-in elections. The state tried to ban that practice but the courts ruled for the city.

I have zero clue if the courts will decide that when certain elections can be held is also a local concern.

However – mark the date and time – I’m going to come down on the side of the Legislature on this one. 

I mean, why does the city want to hold a sales tax election in August (now July) or the middle of May?

I know the answer: Those non-November elections are decided by a much lower turnout. This is why Ohio put that amendment on the ballot in August 2023 that changed the vote threshold of a constitutional amendment to 60 percent. It was a spoiler attack on an abortion rights initiative that wound up passing in November.

Progressives were outraged about that kind of sneakiness. Holding an election when people don’t vote is undemocratic. So why is it OK when a progressive City Council wants to hold one? Maybe it shouldn’t be.

November elections are more democratic. Sometimes Democrats (like some other folks) can forget that democracy doesn’t mean “we always win.”

I should also point out that the Council’s plan to go to the ballot in the summer means the election won’t be conducted solely by mail. All Tucson voters get sent ballots in city-run elections. The summer vote falls on the same day as the state primaries and the county is running the show. Only people requesting early ballots or on the regular early voting list will get their ballots through the postal service.

Finally, the conventional wisdom about low-turnout helping propositions has been proven an urban myth. Voters have approved ballot measures in November. Voters just shot down a pro-forma franchise agreement with Tucson Electric Power and that was held in May.

Anyway, methinks there is more to this illegal election the Council just approved than immediately meets the eye.