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2020 Legislature: Lawmakers have extra money to throw around; Shope wants it for I-10

PHOENIX — State lawmakers return to the Capitol Monday to deal with something they appear to have plenty of — money — and who gets it.

State tax collections have been running ahead of projections made when lawmakers adopted the $11.8 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that began last July 1. Projections suggest the state could end the fiscal year this coming June 30 with an extra $750 million or more, perhaps even approaching $1 billion.

That’s money available for lawmakers to spend next budget year — or use for permanent tax cuts. And that doesn’t even take into account future collections.

Any discussion will have to include more than how much there is. The more important issue is how much of that surplus is likely to recur in future years.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said the issue is simple: Don’t commit money now for projects and programs unless you’re sure the money will continue to be there.

“Last I had heard, 30-ish percent, maybe 25 percent of the surplus is considered ongoing,’’ said Mesnard who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “So we want to make sure that’s the pot that we’re commit ourselves into the future or to cut taxes in some sort of permanent way.’’

The balance, he said, is one-time money.

“We can invest that in roads and one-time projects that are hugely helpful to our state but don’t commit us to some long-term obligation,’’ Mesnard said.

That latter category is going to cover a lot of wish-list projects.

Consider, for example, the $20 million that Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, wants for a bridge over Tonto Creek if a request for federal dollars comes up empty. Fund it once and it’s done

Others have their own pet projects.

Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, wants the state to widen Interstate 10 from south of Phoenix into Pinal County. Shope said there is no reason for that 26-mile section to remain two lanes in each direction when everything on either side is three lanes.

But the price tag on that could reach $500 million.

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, is focused largely on the other pot of funds, the surplus that is likely to continue.

There likely will be a push to put additional dollars into K-12 education.

“We are committed to putting more dollars into the classroom every year,’’ gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak told Capitol Media Services, promising “full details’’ when Ducey releases his budget late next week .

Toma, for his part, has a specific target in mind: accelerate restoration of what’s called “district additional assistance.’’

That is a special allocation of state dollars to schools to pay for things like computers, books and buses. Only thing is, lawmakers seeking to balance the budget failed to fund it for years, including $117 million cut by Ducey his first year in office.

The governor has committed to restoration of the full $372 million — but not until the 2022-2023 fiscal year. Toma said that, given the state’s current financial condition, there’s no reason to wait that long.

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said that’s a start. But she doesn’t believe that goes far enough given the cuts to public education since before the recession.

Consider: In the 2007-2008 school year the state put $5.2 billion into K-12 education. Legislative budget staffers estimate the figure for this year at $6.5 billion.

And, on paper, the per-pupil aid went from $4,996 to $5,762.

But if you consider the effects of inflation, that $4,996 is now worth only about $4,685.

It’s not just Democrats focused on K-12 needs.

Sens. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, and Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, want to put a measure on the 2020 ballot to increase the existing 0.6-cent state sales tax for education to a full penny, a move that could bring in an additional $550 million to $600 million a year.

“I think that’s the sweet spot,’’ Brophy McGee said, saying that’s a number that the public is likely willing to accept. The trick, however, is getting her colleagues to agree to put it to voters.

The funds raised would not just be for K-12.

Lawmakers from both parties say state aid to community colleges has not kept pace. In fact, the systems in Maricopa and Pima counties get no state aid at all, though there has been funding for special programs.

And then there is the university system where the state’s share of the cost of tuition for Arizona residents has dropped from about 75 percent to just half that.

“And we wonder why tuition has gone up,’’ Fernandez said.

Voters actually may get a choice of funding measures.

Others groups are crafting a plan to boost income taxes on the most wealthy under the premise that sales taxes are regressive — the poor pay a higher percentage of their income than the rich — and the simple political fact that it could be crafted so the higher tax rates kick in only at higher incomes, leaving most voters unaffected.

There are some other education-related issues which may not have financial impact, including adding even more cash for counselors and providing more dollars to the state Department of Education to investigate misconduct allegations against teachers.

But the debate about the cash is about more than how to spend it.

Toma said that a newly imposed sales tax on internet purchases — the result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case called South Dakota v. Wayfair — is bringing in more than anticipated. So he wants to give some of that back.

“We should be looking at additional relief for the taxpayers because none of the Wayfair decision was intended as a massive increase in income to the government, at least not on the state tax,’’ he said.

His choice for where to cut?

“I will tell you that my least favorite tax is the property tax,’’ Toma said.

“And the reason for that is I really feel that’s a hidden tax, that people don’t feel,’’ he explained. “They feel it, but they don’t really realize that they’re getting pummeled, if you will.”

Mesnard is also focused on lower property taxes, particularly for business.

Business property used to be assess for tax purposes at 25 percent of “full cash value,’’ essentially a rough approximation of market value. Prior tax cuts have taken that to 18 percent.

The plan would trim that again.

But the problem is that lowering taxes for one type of property increases the burden for others — including homeowners. And that has political implications: homeowners vote, businesses do not.

Mesnard envisions the state using some of its surplus to make up the difference so the tax bill on homeowners does not go up.

Overall his proposal eventually could cut state revenues by $300 million a year.

Fernandez said don’t look for Democrat support.

“A tax cut? That’s not one of the things that’s on the table for us,’’ she said.

Fernandez said lawmakers cut taxes by about $325 million last year with changes to things like the standard deduction on income taxes, a new tax credit of $100 per child and lowering the tax rates for those earning more than $26,500 a year.

Republicans justified the move as simply making up for the fact that changes in federal tax law increased the state tax liability for many Arizonans. The tax cuts, they said, avoided a “windfall’’ for the state.

Fernandez said her constituents and “stakeholders’’ — those who provide and depend on government programs — had a different take.

“That last tax cut, I think it equaled $12 per person per year,’’ she said.

“They would rather have a significant investment they could see,’’ Fernandez continued. “And that would be in public education and/or infrastructure.”

2020 Legislature: By the numbers

The 2020 Arizona Legislature, by the numbers

Deadline for adjourning this year (Saturday the week of the 100th day, counting Saturdays and Sundays) — April 25

Adjournment last year — May 28

Length of last year’s session — 134 days

Longest session — 173 days in 1988

2019 session

Number of bills introduced (not including miscellaneous resolutions and memorials) — 1,318

Number sent to governor — 331

Bills signed — 321

Bills vetoed — 11

Veto record — 58, set in 2005 by Janet Napolitano

House of Representatives

This year — 31 Republicans and 29 Democrats

Two years ago — 35 Republicans and 25 Democrats


This year — 17 Republicans and 13 Democrats

Two years ago — 17 Republicans and 13 Democrats

— Source: Capitol Media Service

2020 Legislature: Ducey promises more good news for state

PHOENIX — The way Gov. Doug Ducey tells it, if you like what he’s been doing for the past five years you’ll love what he will propose Monday in his sixth State of the State address.

What that means, the governor said, is he will propose yet another round of tax cuts — specifically aimed at individuals — and holding the line against what he called “the persistence of the spending lobby.’’

“If you think these first five years have been transformative to the state, you should have the same expectation for what happens in these next three years,’’ he said. “And that’s what we’re going to kick off on Monday afternoon.’’

Put another way, it’s more of the same.

“I made a commitment five years ago that I was going to lower or simplify taxes every year I was in office,’’ he said. “And I’m going to stay committed to that pledge.’’

But Ducey may be parting ways with some of his Republican colleagues who want the tax relief aimed at business.

“I know our businesses are doing very well,’’ the governor said. “And I want them to continue to do well.’’

Ducey, however, thinks that even lower business tax rates are not the only way for Arizona to remain attractive. The governor said that Nevada, Texas and Florida, states that he considers competitors for growth and new business, have no individual income tax; Arizona has tax rates ranging from 2.59 percent for everything up to $26,500 a year for individuals to 4.5 percent on incomes above $318,000.

“I look to tax reform to the real people,’’ he said. And that, said Ducey, means cutting individual income taxes.

“This is how you affect real people in the state,’’ the governor continued, promising specifics during his Monday speech.

On the other side of the equation, Ducey said he will fight various ideas to boost taxes, for whatever reason.

“Folks out there still think that we need a tax increase even though we are sitting on a $1 billion surplus inside the general fund,’’ he said.

That’s aimed not just about various plans to have a new or expanded dedicated tax for education, one involving sales taxes and another looking at higher income taxes for the wealthy. The governor’s stance also is also bad news for proposals by Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, to hike gasoline taxes.

Campbell points out that the current 18-cent-a-gallon levy was set in 1991. With inflation since then, that has cut the effective tax rate to just 9 cents.

On top of that, vehicles are far more fuel efficient. That means owners have to buy fewer gallons — and pay less in gasoline taxes — to drive the same number of miles.

Ducey, for his part, appears content to use some of the current excess to make one-time expenditures for construction as the state did last year in approving the widening of I-17 north of Anthem to Black Canyon City. But that still leaves the question of funding maintenance which Campbell and other lawmakers contend is long overdue, particularly in rural areas.

One thing you won’t be hearing from Ducey is any musing about life beyond the governor’s office when the Arizona Constitution bars him from seeking a third time. The governor said he can’t think about that right now.

“I’ve got 1,085 days remaining in office the day I give the State of the State,’’ he said.

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'Text to 911' to begin in Pinal this summer
 mcowling  / 

FLORENCE — Pinal County residents who can’t call police because of a disability, or for fear suspects will hear them, will be able to send a text to 911, perhaps as soon as mid-July, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors was told Wednesday.

The board approved a contract for the county to receive a state grant of $119,000 to begin “Text to 911.”

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb told the board it’s a program that staff has been working on for a few years. He continued that Robert Woodhull, 911 administrator at the Sheriff’s Office, has done “the lion’s share of the work getting this in place.”

“Text to 911 is not only important for the hearing-impaired, it is also very important for domestic violence victims who can’t pick up the phone and call without being in more danger,” and those being abducted or robbed, Lamb said. The system isn’t just for the Sheriff’s Office, but will be available to every police agency in Pinal County, with the exception of Mammoth and Kearny police and Ak-Chin police.

“We’ve worked on this for probably 3½ years in the Sheriff’s Office,” Woodhull told the board. He said the grant agreement is for five years and he expects it will be renewed after that as well. He said the agreement also excludes the Gila River Indian Community, which will have its own Text to 911 system, “but they’ll be involved when we do all of our training.”

Maricopa, Pima, Gila and Pinal counties will all have Text to 911, “so no matter where you are in the borders of our county, somebody will be able to answer your text to 911,” Woodhull said. He continued there shouldn’t be a need for additional personnel.

Supervisor Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, said, “I think it’s a genius idea, this is absolutely needed. … Well done, and thank you for being persistent to get it done, Sheriff.”

Supervisors Chairman Anthony Smith, R-Maricopa, asked how the program will be publicized. Woodhull replied that he hopes the supervisors and others will see the need and help spread the word.

Lamb added the Sheriff’s Office plans to publicize it on Facebook, Nextdoor, the sheriff’s phone app and other forums at no cost to the county. “We’ll do a lot of media to get it out there.”

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Pinal double-murder suspect takes plea deal
 jheadley  / 

FLORENCE — In a sudden and unexpected twist, murder charges against one of three men arrested in the killing of an Apache Junction couple have been dropped in a plea arrangement.

Clint Wendelschafer, 33, is one of three men charged for the murders of Keith Long and Renae Gardner. Wendelschafer, of Tempe, was taken into custody by the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office on April 23 and charged with first-degree murder.

The couple was shot and killed while they were sleeping at a home in Apache Junction in May 2016. Long’s body was found in a canal in San Tan Valley and Gardner’s body was found along Beeline Highway (State Route 87 between Phoenix and Payson).

Wendelschafer is believed to be one of three suspects involved in the murders. Demian Blu, 41, of Apache Junction was indicted in 2019 for concealing dead bodies and Nicholas Douglas, 44, of San Tan Valley is suspected of helping Blu dispose of the bodies.

Both have been charged with first-degree murder since their initial arrests.

Blu and Douglas appeared Friday in Pinal County Superior Court to have their cases continued to Feb. 21 and re-affirm their upcoming combined trial on March 30.

Wendelschafer was scheduled to appear in court Friday but his planned hearing was canceled. Also, the signed plea agreement he has with prosecutors remains sealed from public view.

Wendelschafer appeared Dec. 20 before Pinal County Superior Court Judge Jason Holmberg to enter guilty pleas to lesser charges of first-degree hindering prosecution and assisting a criminal street gang. Both are Class 3 felonies.

Blu and Douglas remain charged with first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of Long and Gardner.

It is unknown when Wendelschafer will appear in court for sentencing, but the court has scheduled a status review in the case on April 10.

Wendelschafer remains in custody in the Pinal County Adult Detention Center.