Jan Brewer's Surprising Tax Fight
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
PHOENIX — Within six weeks of becoming Arizona's governor last year, Republican Jan Brewer called for a tax increase. Even though it would last only three years, any mention of a tax increase in Arizona — even more than in most of the country — ignites a storm of controversy. For Brewer, looking to be elected to a full term in November, it's a controversy that has consumed much of her 14 months in office.
"I looked at it," she said in a recent interview at her Capitol office, "as either it's the state of Arizona or it's my political career. And I chose the state of Arizona."
Actually, her political career and the fate of the sales tax, which goes before voters May 18, are very much tied together. She may not keep the governor's office if the tax passes, but it's hard to imagine her as governor next January if it fails.
The 65-year-old Brewer moved up from the secretary of state's seventh floor office in the Capitol's executive tower to the governor's ninth floor office under circumstances that ushered in a return to power for her party. Her gubernatorial predecessor, Democrat Janet Napolitano, resigned to join President Obama's cabinet, and as next in line, Brewer gave Republicans control of the governorship and both chambers of the legislature for the first time in six years.
But when Brewer took over for Napolitano, she faced the difficult task of balancing Arizona's budget after the crash of the state's housing-fueled economy left it in shambles. "Of course, at the time we knew — at least I knew — how bad it was going to be," she says. "Today I will tell you I wish it was as bad as I thought it was going to be (then), because it's only been worse."
In the year since, Brewer clashed with legislators in her own party and virtually shut out the Democrats in the minority. One Republican walked out on the speech in which she called for a tax increase. The governor sued the legislature — and won — when lawmakers refused to send her the budget they passed. It took seven special sessions of the legislature to finally hammer out a budget deal.
The spending reductions in that deal are some of the most drastic in the country. Arizona had already shut state parks and highway rest stops. Next year, the news gets worse. The state is zeroing out its KidsCare program, which provides health insurance for 38,000 children, and is mostly paid for with federal money. Arizona plans to drop 310,000 people from Medicaid, about a quarter of the state's rolls. Arizona's two biggest universities each are raising tuition by roughly 20 percent.
All of that assumes Brewer's one-cent sales tax passes. If not, the cuts could be worse. If the tax fails, more than $900 million more would be cut, two-thirds of which currently funds elementary and secondary education. The governor says that's the reality that finally convinced lawmakers in February to put the tax hike on the ballot. "If you give anybody the information and the facts, you can do the math," Brewer says. "I resisted too. I didn't want to raise taxes. I mean, I kept pushing back with all my financial people."
Thomas Patterson, an opponent of the tax increase and chairman of the Goldwater Institute, sees it differently.
"The (opposition) basically just wore down more than anything," says Patterson, who served in the state Senate with Brewer. "She is resolute." As long as the proposal was still on the table, Brewer would keep coming back to it, he says, so the only way to resolve the question was to let voters decide.
In a state where anti-tax sentiment runs particularly high, many Republican leaders are lining up against their party's governor. Arizona's two U.S. senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, both oppose it. So do Brewer's primary opponents. The governor has become the public face of the sales tax campaign.
Brewer insists she has the credentials as a fiscal conservative to make the case. Basically, she argues that if someone with her anti-tax record says the increase is necessary, it must really be needed. The governor says there's a large coalition of groups backing the tax hike. Teachers, firefighters, police and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry all support the measure
The governor notes that, as a member of both the state House and Senate, she consistently opposed tax increases. She led a turnaround of finances in Maricopa County , which encompasses the Phoenix metropolitan area and 60 percent of Arizona's population. When campaigning for secretary of state in 2006, Brewer took a pledge not to raise taxes. During her time in that office, Brewer says, she cut its budget. "We have all been seated to preside over that rarest of political happenings," Brewer crowed at her inauguration as governor, "our government is going to get smaller."
Her many critics, though, say Brewer has ignored other options and offers of help as she tries to make state government solvent.
State Treasurer Dean Martin, who faces Brewer in the Republican primary for governor, says Arizona could save just as much money as the tax increase would bring in by restructuring debts. Under Martin's plan,. Arizona would keep control of its Capitol complex, parts of which are now being sold to private investors.
Russell Pearce, head of the Arizona Senate appropriations committee, is generally sympathetic with the governor. But he says voters should be asked about program cuts, not tax increases. "If you pass that temporary tax, it'll be an addiction," Means says. When it expires, "you'll have a thousand reasons why you can't get rid of it."
Democrats, naturally, had a different plan. They put forward a budget that relied on eliminating tax exemptions rather than using a broad-based sales tax hike. Senator Rebecca Rios says Democrats have done everything they could think of — from outright invitations to floor speeches and entreaties in the media — to get Brewer to discuss the budget with them. Nothing worked. Democrats in the Legislature split on the sales-tax measure, and one senator flipped her electronic voting switch several times before eventually supporting it.
Rios wants the tax increase to pass, but she still questions the way Brewer handled the budget without Democratic input. "The irony for me is, if I was in her shoes, there's no way I would monopolize this mess and take full responsibility for these historic cuts," Rios says. "You would have thought that she would want to share the blame."
The public campaign over Proposition 100 is barely under way, and even key players admit they're not sure whether it will pass. The state isn't the only government in Arizona asking for more money. Cities and schools are appealing to voters for higher taxes, too. Phoenix just raised its sales tax on groceries by 2 cents on the dollar, twice as much as the proposed state tax increase.
The timing of the election — in May, when no candidates are on the ballot — also adds to the unpredictability. In a low-turnout affair, organized groups such as the teachers and police unions could be the deciding factor. But the Tea Party movement is also particularly strong in Arizona, and voters who are simply tired of taxes could defeat the ballot measure.
The vote will prove to be the public's first chance to weigh in on Brewer's governorship and on whether she should keep the job she inherited. But the governor says she's not concerned. "It's not about me, it's about the state," Brewer insists. "I just did it. I have no regrets — win, lose or draw."