The Skinny

CLEAN UP: Candidates who signed contracts to participate in Arizona's fledgling public financing of state elections breathed a sigh of relief last week when the Arizona Supreme Court rejected legal arguments that the system was unconstitutional.

The public-financing law, narrowly passed by voters as the Clean Elections Act in 1998, was challenged by attorneys representing the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, which enjoys its current ability to buy candidates fair and square. The law's uncertain future has discouraged many candidates from participating in this election cycle.

Under the plan, candidates for public office must collect a minimum number of $5 contributions to be eligible for public funding. The number of contributions and the amount available to candidates differs depending on the office, ranging from $25,000 for legislative candidates to $920,000 for the governor's office.

The first candidate in Southern Arizona to become eligible for public financing is Ted Downing, a UA professor of anthropology who is seeking a seat in the state House of Representatives. Downing is running in midtown Tucson/Catalina Foothills District 13, an anomaly in state politics because it is split nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans. (Most districts are weighed heavily toward one party or another.)

Downing, who says it took about four weeks of knocking on doors in D13 to garner enough contributions to qualify, will be eligible for $10,000 in the primary and an additional $15,000 in the general. He's in for a tough race. Both House incumbents, Democrat Andy Nichols and Republican Kathleen Dunbar, are seeking to move up to the Senate seat held by George Cunningham, who is stepping down to challenge U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe.

That leaves two open House seats. The two Republicans in the race are assured slots on the general election ballot: Jonathan Paton, a former intern at the both the legislature and in the governor's office who lost his first bid for public office in the District 9 House primary two years ago, and Carol Somers, who is taking her first shot at public office.

Unlike the Republicans, the four Democrats have a primary fight on their hands. Besides Downing, there are three other political virgins: Gabrielle Giffords, who has been active in civic activities since she sold the family's El Campo tire business to a national franchise; Howard Shore, a physician who is married to former Planned Parenthood honcho Virginia Yrun; and Colette Barajas, who owns Centra Realty on Fourth Avenue.

Whoever comes out of the Democratic primary will face a united GOP team. And that slate will be well funded, primarily because the Republicans are desperate to win District 13 to strengthen their hold on the Senate, which the GOP currently controls with a tight 16-14 margin. That means the party will be spending tens of thousands of soft money dollars on mailers, phone banks and media. In addition, it's likely independent campaign committees will weigh in with tens of thousands in additional funds.

THE HIDDEN TRUTH IN TAXATION: Governments were expected to become more honest when the Arizona Tax Research Association's pet bill, Truth in Taxation, was approved by the Legislature four years ago.

But check out the annual cascade of Truth in Taxation notices in the daily rags and you'll find truth to be elusive.

Pima Community College's whopping 84 percent tax increase this year is the prime example.

Boiled down to simple terms, Arizona's complicated property tax system gives governments and tax districts like Pima College two revenue streams: primary taxes for daily operations and secondary taxes for voter-approved debt--typically bond issues for construction.

Pima College's Truth in Taxation notice in the morning daily on Tuesday, June 6, claimed that primary taxes would be increased for the owner of an $80,000 home from $91.81 to $93.67. Not much harm there. But looking at the very next page, the legal notice that breaks down the college's budget, taxpayers see that there will be no increase at all in primary taxes because the college's primary rate will drop by less than 3/10ths of a penny from $1.1733 per $100 of assessed value to $1.1709. Thus the primary tax bite for the owner of that $80,000 home will be $93.67 this year, down from $93.86.

Still, the college won't be hurting for bucks from local taxpayers. In fact, the total levy despite that slight drop in the primary tax rate will increase by $2.7 million.

The boys and girls at the Arizona Tax Research Association explain that the Truth in Taxation law is designed to give a true picture of the increases in revenues governments and tax districts have when there is growth in the tax base.

Voters have only themselves to blame for the real tax increase Pima College is delivering this year. The secondary rate will jump 84 percent, from 21 cents per $100, or $16.80 a year for the owner of an $80,000 home, to 38.65 cents per $100, or $30.92 for the owner of that $80,000 home. Voters approved bonds for Pima College expansion all over metro Tucson four years ago.

The Truth in Taxation law gave governments a break on secondary taxes for the simple excuse that voters approved the debt.

The tax reality for Pima College supporters is that the owner of the $80,000 home will be paying $124.59 this year to Pima College--up from the $110.66 paid this year.

That tax increase, combined with the building boom and increased property values in Pima County, enables the Pima College Board to jack up spending for expansion and construction by a wild 96 percent--from $8.2 million to $16.2 million.

With tuition and student fees together with property taxes, Pima College will have $98.5 million to play with this year--a nearly 11.5 percent increase over this year's budget.

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