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Coconino County road work

Coconino County is spending $1.45 million on a project to preserve the pavement, widen the shoulders and improve drainage on Koch Field Road. The project, which is made possible by a voter-approved county sales tax increase, is due to be finished by the end of the month. 

PHOENIX -- With gas tax revenues lagging, state lawmakers are moving to allowing all 15 counties to levy their own sales taxes to fund critical road and transit needs.

SB 1147, approved by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, would specifically allow those counties that already have such a tax to seek voter approval for an extension. That is designed to help not only build or repair existing roads but build out the mass transit system that didn't get funded when the recession cut into existing tax revenues.

Potentially more significant, it would provide for the first time ever that same option to rural counties, which until now have been totally dependent on the money they get from the state to pave new roads, repair existing ones and, to the extent they want it, some form of mass transit.

Those funds are not keeping pace with needs, with the gasoline tax having remained at 18 cents a gallon since 1991. And state lawmakers, looking for cash during the recession, have diverted some of those dollars to fund the Highway Patrol.

Coconino County voters approved a 0.3 percent sales tax for road maintenance and repairs in 2014 that raises about $6 million to $7 million a year through 2024.

Wednesday's unanimous vote came over the objection of Aimee Rigler, lobbyist for the Arizona Free Enterprise Club.

She said it made no sense to allow counties to levy a tax for the next 20 years when no one knows how changes in technology will affect transportation needs. Rigler said it could result in tax dollars being spent on what could be "obsolete technology.''

But Rigler's larger objection was over the ability of supervisors in each county to come up with their own transit plan. She said the final decision on how to spend these dollars should remain with state lawmakers.

That suggestion annoyed Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, who chairs the committee.

"The oversight is in the counties,'' he said. "It's with the county supervisors and the people who live within that county.''

And Campbell said that when the issue goes to the ballot, the voters will get to see how the dollars would be spent and decide if they're willing to tax themselves for those programs.

"The plan is transparent,'' he told Rigler. "I don't understand your opposition.''

The legislation is being pushed by Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa.

He told lawmakers that the current half-cent levy imposed by Maricopa County voters on themselves in 2004 has resulted in "beautiful highways'' and a much improved transit system. Worsley said there have been similar benefits in Pima County, with Pinal County just getting started with its own regional transportation district.

"The rest of the state, the rural areas of the state, have been left out from this,'' he said. "And the roads show that.''

Worsley said that should be a concern not only to rural residents. He said there are many urban dwellers who spend their weekends at second homes and depend on decent roads to get them there.

Wednesday's unanimous committee approval does not mean there are no concerns.

Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, said he wants some assurance that when sales taxes are collected from throughout an entire county there is "equitable distribution'' of the dollars. Payne said he will oppose the measure when it goes next to the House Ways and Means Committee if that issue is not addressed.

For Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, the issue was more practical.

He pointed out that voters are likely to be asked in the next few years to extend the 0.6-cent sales tax that now funds education, a levy that will disappear in 2021 unless renewed. There also are suggestions to actually increase the tax going forward.

Cook worried that having two separate sales tax measures on the same ballot could result in one -- if not both -- of them being defeated.


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