PHOENIX — Pinal County might not be getting those roads residents thought they voted for.
The tax passed by voters to fund major road projects throughout Pinal County was struck down in Maricopa County Superior Court’s Tax Court, which ruled the new tax is illegal.
Pinal County spokesman Joe Pyritz released a statement that indicated the county was consulting with its legal team on the possibility of taking the case to the Arizona Court of Appeals.
Propositions 416 and 417 passed in November. The former, which was the transportation study itself, passed with a 57 percent vote, and the latter, a half-cent sales tax to pay for it, passed narrowly with 51 percent approval.
The Goldwater Institute, a conservative organization, sued the county on behalf of Casa Grande resident Harold Vangilder on the grounds that the tax violated the law. The suit claimed the proponents told voters the county would impose the tax only on retail businesses, and then once it was approved told state officials to impose the tax on all businesses in the county, which the Goldwater Institute argued was contrary to what voters approved.
County Manager Greg Stanley initially responded during a March Board of Supervisors meeting, calling the Goldwater statement “fake news.”
“There was no change to what the voters approved in that resolution that the RTA passed last Thursday,” Stanley said at the time. “It was simply what (the Arizona Department of Revenue) requested we do, which was to transmit to them to start collecting that tax effective April 1.”
The court, however, did not agree and Judge Christopher Whitten struck down the tax.
“Proposition 417’s express reach extends only to ‘every person engaging or continuing in the business of selling tangible personal property at retail,’” the court decision reads. “Plainly, the proposition does not specifically cover any category except retail sales.”
The tax and road projects were widely supported by politicians in the county, who touted the improved transportation projects as critical to development in Pinal County. The county had begun collecting the tax and placing funds into an escrow account, but could not use the funds until the lawsuit was settled.
“I mean, it’s certainly disappointing to see that the judge made a decision on a technicality,” Maricopa Mayor Christian Price said. “But, you know, at the at the same time, we always knew whoever won this first round, it was going to appeal. So whether we won or lost, it was moving to appeal to the second round.”
These projects included the widening of State Route 347 near Maricopa and the construction of a north-south highway to eventually connect Apache Junction to Interstate 10, which officials in San Tan Valley, Florence and Coolidge have touted as potential economic boons for their communities. Projects in Casa Grande and other parts of the county also were included.
The plaintiff expressed hope that the matter was settled.
“Our Republican officials will think twice about raising my taxes in the future,” Vangilder said. “Hopefully the county will not be stupid enough to spend my money fighting this.”
However, Pyritz’s statement seems to indicate otherwise.
“The voters were informed and clearly understood that the tax they approved to pay for the 20-year transportation plan, which they also approved at the same election, applied to all classifications and not just retail sales,” the statement said. “We fully expected, no matter the judge’s decision, that this case would be going to the Court of Appeals. To that end, we disagree with Judge Whitten’s ruling and will consult with counsel to discuss going to the Court of Appeals.”