Pinal County and the state of Arizona need to grow their “tax pie” instead of adding taxes vertically, lawmakers and county officials said Saturday.
Before the Arizona Legislature went into session Monday, local legislators offered a preview for Maricopans.
About two dozen residents plus elected officials and city staff came to a town hall hosted by Pinal County Supervisor Anthony Smith. He also had the county assessor and county recorder on hand to answer questions. The event was at Maricopa City Hall.
While Sen. Steve Smith (R-Maricopa) and Rep. Mark Finchem (R-Oro Valley) described some bills they were backing, Rep. Vincent Leach (R-Saddlebrooke) said he was not working on legislation but was instead focusing on “the budget, the deficit and the debt.”
Leach pointed out the inordinate amount of public lands in Arizona and said a much higher percentage should be private and available for state taxation.
He said lawmakers are looking at a $500 million debt this year and $1 billion next year.
“We need to grow our way out rather than tax our way out,” he said. “We need to find ways to get our federal lands back and working for us.”
County Assessor Doug Wolf said only about 15 percent of Arizona land is in the private sector, compared to around 90 percent in New York. Of the land allotted at statehood more than 100 years ago, he said only about 10 percent has been sold.
That fact, he said, hinders the ability of taxing districts, like the county and schools, to gather funds. Wolf said he hopes the new director of state trust lands will take action on the issue.
Besides the contingent from District 11, Rep. Frank Pratt of District 8 also addressed the crowd. He said about 70 percent of the state budget is on autopilot, with so-called untouchables like universities and public safety. But, he added, “I don’t think anything is off the table.”
Pratt said the state’s $450 million rainy-day fund will help get through the current budget process.
Finchem said he was working on a bill to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Fisher House for military families and a bill to replace Common Core. He wants to resurrect a bill vetoed by Gov. Janet Napolitano that codifies rights of way on public lands. He also backs legislation to require high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test.
The legislators all said the state needs to put its natural resources to work, including those in Pinal County.
“In so many ways we have so many assets right beneath our feet,” Smith said.
Smith and Finchem both praised incoming Gov. Doug Ducey. Smith said he believes the governor’s budget will closely align with the Senate’s.
“He brings a massive amount of business economy leadership,” he said.
Asked if there were any advocates for public safety in the Legislature, Pratt said they were all aware of the issues of low staffing in the Department of Public Safety, which has lost personnel to lateral transfers into municipal departments. He said the Gila River community is patrolling a portion of Interstate 10 because of the problem.
Smith said he is upset with the recent perception of “anti-cop” sentiment across the county and said he is planning some legislative hearings. He said DPS was the only department that received pay raises last session.
“I know we’ve got a pretty strong advocacy group,” Finchem said.