Rush Hour

Chasing votes in next month's special election.

With early voting for the city sales-tax proposition officially under way, the race is on to land voters as soon as possible.

The May 21 election is still a month off, but backers of the proposal are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on radio ads, phone banks and other outreach to persuade voters to support the proposition.

The effort is piggybacking on an effort by the city transportation department to provide information about the sales tax, which had cost $626,952 through March 6. Critics complain the city's campaign is a thinly veiled propaganda campaign.

The big push comes as no surprise, given that Mayor Bob Walkup has made the proposition's passage the top priority of his administration.

Backers of the proposal are well aware that voters have rejected two previous countywide efforts to enact a half-cent sales tax for transportation in the last 16 years. In 1986, a road-heavy proposition lost by 57 percent; in 1990, a proposal that would have split dollars between roads and alternative modes went down by 61 percent.

By scheduling the election in May, city officials have ensured a low turnout. Now the campaign committee is doing its best to identify supporters and put an early ballot in their hands.

Early voting played a pivotal role in last November's city elections, in which Republicans Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar defeated their Democratic opponents, despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans by a more than a 3-to-2 margin.

The Republican campaigns, aided by the GOP and an independent campaign committee, turned out their troops in an election that saw only 27 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. Nearly 40 percent of those who voted did so by mail, which the Republicans dominated nearly 2-to-1. Ronstadt and Dunbar both lost in the ballots cast on election day, but the early votes gave them the edge they needed to win their races.

A recently formed political committee, Let's Go Tucson, has launched a similar push for early ballots in the sales-tax election, using phone banks, mailers, outreach to employers and a media campaign. Although campaign finance reports aren't due until May 9, the group is expected to raise as much as a half-million dollars, which allows for sophisticated voter targeting.

The Let's Go Tucson name was established by the City of Tucson, which spent about $356,000 in transportation dollars on the effort.

An early poll by the Let's Go Tucson program showed only 48 percent of city voters would support a sales tax in general for transportation, but 67 percent would probably support the tax provided the city dedicated the funding to a specific plan and began the improvements immediately.

So the city set out to put together that plan, appointing a citizen committee that met weekly for less than three months before submitting the plan to the elected officials, who slightly boosted transit spending and trimmed the percentage for residential street improvements.

Once the council voted to ask voters for the tax hike, the city shut down the Let's Go Tucson program. The name was quickly snatched up by the private political committee.

Meanwhile, city spending on behalf of the proposition continued under a new program, the Transportation Improvement and Traffic Congestion Reduction Program, or TITCRP, which had cost the city roughly $273,000 through March 6.

TITCRP's biggest single expense was $184,739 in transportation staff time. The city had also bought nearly $18,000 in media air time and spent more than $6,000 for video production and more than $10,800 on printed materials. Public meetings had cost nearly $7,500, along with about $6,600 on speaker training and manuals.

City employees recently received a notice about the benefits of the sales tax in their paychecks as well.

State law forbids the city from using public dollars to influence the election, but allows officials to disseminate information related to proposal. City officials maintain they've been careful to avoid advocating a position with their advertising campaign.

Earlier this month, Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano said her office would not investigate the city spending.

OPPONENTS OF THE sales tax can't hope to match the big-dollar campaign they're going up against, but they're running grassroots campaigns to sway public opinion.

Two committees are campaigning against the proposal. One group, Enough!, takes its name from a similar committee that opposed the 1986 sales-tax proposal. Key figures in the group include former city councilwoman Molly McKasson, former state lawmaker John Kromko and regular Weekly contributor Dave Devine, along with business owners along Campbell Avenue who oppose the city's plans to build a grade-separated intersection at Campbell and Grant (see "The Grade Depression," page 10).

The other committee, Citizens for a Sensible Transportation, is an offshoot of a non-profit group dedicated to developing a better mass transit system, including light rail.

"This plan does nothing but follow the failed policies of the past," says Steve Farley, the outspoken graphic designer who has organized a petition drive to ask voters to support an alternative transportation plan in November. "I think it's time we said no to the forces of sprawl and congestion."

The complaints from both groups often overlap. Critics say a regressive sales tax should benefit low-income taxpayers such as bus riders, but the plan won't allow any significant expansion of the Sun Tran system, which has seen repeated service cuts in recent years. The city promises to provide some additional weekend and evening routes, as well as new Southeast Side service, although officials concede that maintaining those new routes will require larger subsidies from the general fund. But, they warn, bus service will be cut further of the prop doesn't pass.

The opponents also accuse the city of low-balling the costs of some projects, such as the grade-separated interchange that will take Kino Boulevard over 22nd Street. City transportation staffers say the bridge, which will basically extend the existing Murphy's Overpass, will cost just $10 million, but the Pima Association of Government's 25-year regional plan puts the cost at $25 million. Albert Elias, a deputy director with the transportation department, says he can't explain why the cost has dropped so significantly.

Councilman Fred Ronstadt remains confident the Kino Boulevard work can be done for $10 million. He says PAG estimates of road projects are often too high and the cost of such projects shrink once city officials sit down to design them. That revelation that will likely surprise voters who have seen the cost of projects in the 1997 county road bond package climb from $350 million to nearly $700 million since voters approved it.

Beyond the potential cost overruns, critics of the plan say the city could shift some of the $42 million of general fund dollars that now support transportation into other areas of the budget. City officials say they'll keep spending at least at the current level of $172 million a year, but inflationary increases from other transportation funding sources will allow them to keep spending at that level even if general fund contributions decrease.

Opponents of the plan also gripe that the city will be spending more than $50 million of the new sales tax dollars--and a total of $86 million overall in the next decade--on the city's eastern edge, widening Houghton Road and several other arteries that connect to it.

At the same time, Walkup and other council members staunchly resist transportation impact fees, even though the much-ballyhooed citizen committee recommended the council pursue such funding mechanisms and nearly half the voters in the city's poll support the fees.

Walkup says impact fees drive up the cost of housing. "One of the things that has impacted other cities' housing is that they have fallen into the trap of easy money of impact fees," explains Walkup. "I think there's a better way to pay for growth than attaching a rooftop fee called an impact fee."

Walkup suggests developers should provide "some assistance" to help build roads near their developments. He explains that developers might not pass along those costs to homebuyers "because then it is a specific cost."

While they have no shortage of objections, critics of the plan lack the fund-raising ability of the proposition's boosters. With little money to spend on their campaign, it remains to be seen if the critics will be able to get their concerns across to voters, most of whom will likely stay home on election day.