Arizona sales tax vote bucks anti-government trend

Arizona sold its state Capitol, privatized prisons and closed some of its state parks, all to bridge a budget deficit that rivals California’s.

But on Tuesday, voters in this state that is famously averse to government spending decided enough was enough. Gov. Jan Brewer was able to persuade a conservative electorate to do what Californians would not do for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — give the state more money. They voted 64% to 36% for a temporary sales tax increase to 6.6% from 5.6%.

“With the economy the way it was, they were laying off firefighters, police and teachers,” said Nick Troisi, 69, a retired businessman from the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley, who backed the measure. “To take a penny out of every dollar is not a big thing.”

Brewer’s advocacy of the tax, Proposition 100, bitterly divided the Republican Party, with many legislators arguing Arizona needed to cut deeper and switch to a four-day school week or take other drastic steps to live within its means.

Those calls for cutbacks echoed anti-government rhetoric that is increasingly popular nationwide, but when push has come to shove, some voters have balked when the alternative meant losing key services. Arizona is the latest in a series of conservative states to grudgingly approve tax hikes.

The Kansas Legislature approved a penny sales tax increase last week, and South Carolina lawmakers overrode a gubernatorial veto to enact a 50-cent cigarette tax hike. Georgia’s Legislature last month agreed to allow regional transit agencies to ask voters for a sales tax hike.

“Everybody wants to see smaller government as long as you don’t cut the thing that’s most important to me,” said Le Templar of the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, a libertarian think tank that has argued for deeper cuts.

Templar noted that the cuts in government spending over the past year — Arizona’s budget has shrunk 20% — were across the board rather than eliminating specific programs. “They’ve been not saying, ‘Government is going to not do this anymore because we can’t afford it,’ ” he said. “And when they couldn’t avoid that anymore, they went to the voters with a tax increase.”

Arizona’s increase, set to take effect later this month, will last three years and is expected to raise $1 billion a year.

Arizona’s Legislature has cut taxes virtually every year since the 1990s. Before Tuesday’s vote, the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan group, had ranked Arizona as having the 10th lowest tax burden in the nation. But opponents of the measure disagreed with that analysis.

The campaign for Proposition 100 had a wide coalition of business interests, teachers, police and firefighter unions. Supporters spent $2.2 million promoting the measure, while its opposition spent only $1,300. Because of that imbalance, many political observers expected at least a narrow victory. The lopsided margin took many by surprise.

“To call the Prop. 100 campaign spending disparity a David vs. Goliath matchup is unfair to the ‘no’ side,” said Farrell Quinlan, head of the Arizona chapter of the National Assn. of Independent Businesses, one of the few groups that opposed the measure. “At least David had a slingshot.”

In a statement released late Tuesday, Quinlan noted that, even with Proposition 100, the state may still have to cut another $1.2 billion from its budget. In the last two years, the budget had already been chopped from $10 billion to about $8 billion. Quilan said voters may feel betrayed when services are trimmed again.

Regardless, political observers said the vote was a huge victory for Brewer, who inherited the governor’s office in January 2009, after Democrat Janet Napolitano joined the Obama administration as secretary of Homeland Security. Brewer pushed the Legislature to put the tax proposal on a special election ballot, and her efforts drew her at least 20 challengers in the August gubernatorial primary.

“The governor is in better shape than she has been since the day she ascended,” said lobbyist Stan Barnes. He added that the vote belies stereotypes of Arizona as a reactionary state — an image that flourished after Brewer last month signed a tough law targeting illegal immigrants that has been widely criticized.

“Arizona as a voting electorate is a lot more open-minded than Arizona is given credit for,” Barnes said, noting that voters here have also approved public funding for election campaigns and the use of medical marijuana.

But Barbara Norrander, a political science professor at the University of Arizona, cautioned that the electorate’s decision this week was a fairly narrow one. The campaign for the tax pivoted on saving public education.

“It was a recognition that you can’t squeeze education any more without having dire results,” Norrander said. “It’s still a conservative state.”