Last month the Trump Administration released their budget proposal, which among many shifting priorities, included eliminating a long-standing federal program called “New Starts.”  New Starts was created in the 1990’s and has funneled hundreds of millions of federal monies to localities to build expensive transit projects, including light rail systems.

It was no surprise that many who have benefitted from the light rail gravy train over the past few decades reacted as if the fields were on fire.

Among the arguments made to attribute value to the New Starts program, was the claim that light rail in the Phoenix Metro Area has generated $9 billion in “real estate activity” surrounding the transit line in the last decade.  More than being overly optimistic, this claim has been summarily debunked.

Just a year and a half ago, light rail enthusiasts took credit for $7 billion in development.  Upon further investigation however, it was discovered that new development was actually $6.9 billion in development plans.  And these plans were mostly submitted prior to the financial crash and prior to the light rail line opening or even being announced.

Furthermore, many of these plans languished and never came to fruition.  Specifically, at least half a billion dollars’ were cancelled and as a result, assertions that a boon of development had occurred were pared back from $7.4 billion in 2009 to $6.9 billion in 2013.

Not only did many private developments fall through or cancel, much of the development that has occurred has been subsidized by the government in the way of low-income housing tax credits and other government programs.  In  many instances the government  has had to pay people to build by light rail.

And lastly Valley Metro has included in their figures, development that would have occurred anyway, such as the construction of a new high school and the expansion of the Phoenix Convention Center.

This isn’t just in Phoenix.  There is no evidence that light rail spurs development.

According to the independent study commissioned by the Federal Transit Administration itself, light rail does not create growth, but at best redistributes it.  The strongest correlation in fact, is the cities that have spent the most in transit have had the slowest growth.  Though not spending money on transit is not a guaranteed advantage, spending more on transit has consistently been correlated to slow or stagnate growth.

This should come as no surprise considering the amount of debt cities generally take on when building fancy rail lines.  Not only do many cities incur debt to fund capital costs to match federal contributions, but often cities fail to have the necessary funds for ongoing maintenance and operations costs.  Of all the rail lines in the country, only one has been built “on time” and “on budget.”  And it wasn’t Phoenix.

But set aside the apparent fact that Arizona has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on a transit system that has increased congestion on the roads, cannibalized bus ridership, and failed to provide any external growth.  There’s an even more salient reason tax payers should be thrilled by Trump’s prerogative to eliminate the carrot for more light rail spending.

The country is on the verge of a transportation revolution.  The reality is no one knows what transportation, transit, or infrastructure will look like in the next five to ten years with the advent of autonomous vehicles.   Government incentivizes to incur long-term debt to invest in century old technology that is already obsolete is an absurd policy decision.

Rationalizing spending more money on a sunk system because we have already spent so much, is throwing good money after bad.  It’s past time the outdated New Starts program as well as the old transit line technology be ushered out to make room for the possibilities of the future.

Among the flurry of special interest tax breaks the Free Enterprise Club opposed this session, one was able to make its way to the Governor’s desk.  The Angel Investor Tax Credit program, a bill The Club fights every year, passed out of the House on the last day of session and is awaiting action by Governor Ducey.

Under HB 2191, $10 Million would be allocated in tax credits to wealthy investors to subsidize their risky business ventures.  In the words of Robert Robb from the Republic, “The state is stumping for a third of the investment but getting no stake in any returns.  That’s not really an incentive.  That’s being played for a sucker.”

This tax credit giveaway is even harder to swallow considering that the legislature allocated only $12 Million in income tax relief for all taxpayers when it increased the personal exemption in the budget. Why should special interests get $10 million in tax breaks when hardworking taxpayers only get $12 million?

The Free Enterprise Club urges Governor Ducey to VETO HB 2191. Taxpayers should not be in the business of subsidizing risky venture capital investments by wealthy investors. It’s a program that picks winners and losers among taxpayers, among venture capital investors, and among aspiring entrepreneurs.

***Update***5/23/2017

Unfortunately, Governor Ducey sided with wealthy investors over taxpayers and signed HB 2191. The Club will continue to monitor this giveaway very closely to see how our tax dollars are wasted over the next four years. The early prediction is that the Arizona Commerce Authority and the politically connected investors will identify the low risk/safest investments possible (ones that would have received funding regardless of the credit) in order to declare the program a success. Be prepared to see them at the capitol again pushing these “success stories” looking for more taxpayer cash.

This session the Free Enterprise Club has been urging for the passage of HB 2495, legislation requiring that all local elections involving a sales tax increase be held in November of even-numbered years.

The bill passed the House 31-27 but ran into trouble in the Senate, dying in the Judiciary committee by a narrow 3-4 vote. However, in the waning days of session the bill was resurrected by fiscal conservatives in the House and Senate and was approved by the legislature late Tuesday afternoon. The bill is now headed to the Governor’s desk awaiting his signature.

This is a huge victory for taxpayers as consolidated elections saves money, increases voter participation and ends the practice of cities and counties intentionally putting tax hikes on the ballot in low turnout elections to improve their chance of passage.

The evidence already exists that consolidating election dates is a very popular reform. In 2012, the legislature passed HB2826, requiring municipalities to hold candidate elections on the same dates as statewide elections. The increase in voter turnout was immediate:

  • In the three election cycles prior to candidate election consolidation, voter turnout in Maricopa County never exceeded 26%, with average turnout around 20%.
  • After consolidation in 2014 and 2016, Maricopa County turnout was never below 26% and was as high as 74% in the most recent election.

Increased voter turnout is one benefit of reform.  Consolidated elections save taxpayers money.  When cities hold elections on non-consolidated dates, taxpayers incur significant additional expenses in printing, voter education, notifications, facilities and postage.  The City of Scottsdale consolidated their election in 2008 and the benefits were immediate.  In addition to the much higher voter turnout in the 2010 election, the city saved residents $110,000.

Opponents to reform (local government and various special interests) cite the same arguments against consolidation that they have used for years. Moving elections mean local issues will compete for time, attention, resources, and ballot real estate with state and national races and matters.  That somehow voters are better served when they can study these issues in isolation and are not “fatigued” by a long ballot, perhaps abandoning the “local issues” at the bottom of the ballot.

They also used the bizarre claim that consolidated elections would imperil local government if there is an emergency and a new tax hike needed.  Aside from the general absurdity of an “emergency tax,” cities already have the authority to pass a tax increase without voter approval by a majority vote of their elected body.  Mayors and Councilmembers, if they truly believe a tax increase is necessary, are free to vote for one, devoid of the political cover of “the will of the voters.”

Consolidated elections have been studied by historians, scholars and policymakers across the political and ideological spectrum, all reaching the same conclusion.  Off-cycle elections in practice (and by design) reduce voter turnout and benefit organized special interest groups.  No matter the political bent, organizations who stand to benefit most, are strategically served by low voter turnout.  Organized groups are more likely to know about an off-cycle election that enriches themselves and their turnout has a much greater general impact on the overall election.

Consolidated elections have proven time and again to increase voter turnout, reduce costs and provides predictability and consistency to voters.  We congratulate the legislature in passing this long overdue reform!



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The Arizona Free Enterprise Club is a free market policy and advocacy group dedicated to promoting a strong and vibrant Arizona economy.