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A Tale of Two Taxes

Tucson voters may be asked to raise sales taxes for roads, cops, firefighters and rugrats next year

County officials are still counting votes in this week's election, so it might be a wee bit early to start talking about 2017. Nonetheless, the Tucson City Council is already looking at asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund road repair and some major capital purchases for the police and fire departments, including new cop cars, fire trucks and other long-neglected needs.

Meanwhile, a new group is pushing a citywide initiative for next November to hike the sales tax by a half-cent to pay for early-childhood education for parents who are struggling to find the money to send their kids to preschool.

First, there's the city's proposal. Last month, the Tucson City Council voted unanimously to start putting together a May election so the city can catch up on road repair and capital needs for the cops and firefighters. According to numbers assembled by City Manager Mike Ortega, the Police Department needs an estimated $85 million; the Fire Department needs an estimated $114 million; the city's major streets need an estimated $168 million; neighborhood and local streets need an estimated $532 million; and sidewalks and other connectivity projects—streetlights, bike boulevards, greenways and the like—need an estimated $211 million.

A half-cent sales tax would raise an estimated $250 million over five years, which would put a significant dent into those deferred maintenance costs. While the impact will certainly vary depending on how much someone spends, the estimated cost per Tucson resident is $2.98 a month.

City staff is still hammering out the proposal, but the general idea at this point is to ask voters for a hike in the sales tax that would expire in five years. That would allow the city to take care of a significant chunk of the backlog, although the roads would still need a lot of work even after those five years.

Then there's the Strong Start Tucson proposal. Penelope Jacks, who is chairing the effort, told The Skinny that there are many good reasons to increase the city sales tax by a half-cent to help at least 6,000 kids attend preschool.

"Children who attend high-quality preschool have been shown to have a much, much higher graduation-from-high-school rate, a much lower subsequent need for incarceration, much lower welfare, much lower special education needs," Jacks says. "That's from the child's perspective. From the parents' perspective, it means parents can work at a job and not fear where their children are. They can become much more able members of the workforce and the community. We see it as an economic development boom and it could entice people to come back to the city."

The state of Arizona does help with childcare costs with federal funds and tobacco taxes, but as of June 2016, more than 7,500 kids were on a waiting list. When Republican Jan Brewer took over as governor, state lawmaker eliminated all general-fund dollars to help with childcare; although lawmakers approved spending $5 million on the effort in 2014, Gov. Doug Ducey's first budget zeroed it out.

The federal government's support for childcare was part of the welfare reform legislation passed back when Bill Clinton was in the White House. The idea was simple: To make sure that single moms could join the workforce and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the government would ensure that they had safe and reliable childcare, as it didn't make much sense to land a low-wage job and spend all that money on daycare. But at least in Arizona, that effort was largely abandoned by GOP leaders when they saw an opportunity to scratch it from the budget.

The Strong Start Tucson plan would provide financial assistance to parents on a sliding scale based on income, with scholarships going to kids who are attending high-quality preschool programs.

City Councilman Steve Kozachik told The Skinny that he has warned the backers of Strong Start Tucson that their timing leaves a lot to be desired.

"I've told them: Here are the dynamics of what Strong Start is going up against," Kozachik says. "We will beat you to the ballot box with roads. First of all, that will take the temperature of the community. If that goes down, there's no way that anything will pass, because everybody wants better roads. So we will already effectively increase the sales tax by a half cent and now you're coming in a few months later and saying we want to increase it by another half-cent."

Kozachik added that it's hard to predict where the conversation on education will be in a year, given that there could be efforts to reverse the legal settlement of school funding achieved with the passage of Prop 123 earlier this year; there's a push to restore all-day kindergarten that may or may not succeed in the Arizona Legislature; and voters will soon face the question about whether to extend the state's current .6-cent sales tax for education, which expires in 2021.

"So the people doing the initiative are walking into an environment where education is going to be in the courts or in the Legislature being kicked around," Kozachik says. "You add that on top of the fact that the city already beat you to the punch in terms of adding a half-cent sales tax and you're talking about going from 2.5 percent to 3 percent and it's going to be a tough lift. ... Timing is everything. While it's a totally laudable goal and I rally to the cause of more pre-K because of the results, this may not be the time to act."

But Jacks says that Strong Start Tucson backers, while concerned about the competing proposals, still believe they have a good start at the ballot box.

"We think the city needs roads," Jacks says. "We think the city needs transportation. So we absolutely support that and we think that the voters understand the need for looking down and seeing a road without potholes and looking up and seeing a future for our children. And our polling is such that people really support this idea because they really want a fair and equal chance for children. That's the thing that resonates."

Strong Start Tucson is kicking off its campaign with a party from 5:30 to 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 17, at 700 N. Stone Ave. For more info on the initiative, visit strongstarttucson.org.

Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel is now a radio show! You can hear a half-hour conversation about state, local and national politics on Sunday afternoons at 5 p.m. on KXCI Community Radio, 91.3 FM. This week: We'll be discussing how the dust is settling following this week's election.

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