Arizona Voters To Decide On Sales Tax Hike

fromAPR

Arizonans go to the polls to vote on a temporary one cent sales tax increase Tuesday. Prop 100 is an attempt to help plug the state's budget deficit. Few people want to raise taxes. But if the vote fails, hundreds of millions of dollars will be cut from the state's universities and public schools and from health and welfare programs.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

We turn now to Arizona, where residents vote today on a measure that would temporarily increase the sales tax by one cent to help balance the state's budget. Arizona was hit hard by the recession and has already cut spending.

Taxes are always a tough sell in conservative Arizona, but if the measure -known as Prop 100 - fails, public schools and universities stand to lose hundreds of millions in a state where education funding is already among the lowest in the country.

Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker reports.

DANIEL KRAKER: The school year is winding down, but at Coconino High School in Flagstaff, the band is tuning up.

(Soundbite of fingers snapping)

Ms. JENNIFER HAMILTON (Band Director, Coconino High School): And one, two, ready.

(Soundbite of music)

KRAKER: Jennifer Hamilton has directed the school band here for seven years. But last month, she was given a reduction in force, or RIF letter - basically, a conditional layoff notice.

Ms. HAMILTON: It's difficult to be doing what you do and realize it's nothing personal.

KRAKER: More than 200 music, art and other teachers in Flagstaff were RIF'ed in the face of severe state budget cuts to education.

Ms. BARBARA HICKMAN (School Superintendent, Flagstaff): We're really hoping that if the sales tax passes, to be able to bring back some of the people involved in the reduction in force.

KRAKER: That's Flagstaff Schools Superintendent Barbara Hickman. She's staring at a $4 million budget cut even if Prop 100 passes. Without it, it's eight million. To balance its books, the state legislature has slashed funding for a whole host of programs, but most significantly to education.

The state's three public universities have had their state appropriations cut by 18 percent over the past two years. If Prop 100 fails, Northern Arizona University President John Haeger says that will grow to 30 percent.

Dr. JOHN HAEGER (President, Northern Arizona University): I don't believe a state in the 21st century can ever develop economically, could ever pull itself out of this recession without a strong public education system. So there is a lot at stake.

KRAKER: So much so that groups that would typically oppose any tax increase are supporting Prop 100 - people like John Sininger. He's an executive at Gore, the company that invented Gore-Tex and one of the largest employers in Northern Arizona.

Mr. JOHN SININGER (Executive, Gore): No one here wants higher taxes. No one does. But we're sending a message that it's that important to us, that we are even willing to raise our taxes to do this.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

KRAKER: Even at a Tea Party rally on Tax Day last month in Flagstaff, there were some people ready to support the tax hike. But there were also people like Joy Stavely. She owns a company that leads white water rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. She says that while she prefers a sales tax to a property or income tax, she's still going to vote no.

Ms. JOY STAVELY (Owner, Canyoneers River Rafting Company): I think that the sales tax would simply prolong what we have to do, which is to cut spending. We cannot keep taxing people. I'm afraid that the increase in the sales tax will have a negative impact on businesses, because I'm concerned people will spend less.

KRAKER: Over the past couple years, a number of states in the nation have addressed budget shortfalls through increased taxes. Nick Johnson directs the State Fiscal Project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Mr. NICK JOHNSON (Director, State Fiscal Project, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): The vast majority of the 33 states that have taken a balanced approach - that is, that have done a combination of both tax increases and budget cuts - have done so through legislative action.

KRAKER: Not by going directly to the people. For example, the California legislature approved a sales tax increase that's set to expire next summer. But when they went to voters asking them to extend it, they said no. Education leaders in Arizona are banking on voters here to make a different choice.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker, in Flagstaff.

(Soundbite of music)

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