Arizona's Sales Tax Vote: The Size of Government on the Ballot

The political world is focused today on U.S. Senate primaries in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky. But, the best test of what voters are thinking actually is a ballot measure to temporarily raise the sales tax in Arizona. The question: Do voters want to see governments balance their budgets through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts or exclusively through deep spending cuts?
by | May 18, 2010

The election today that will tell us the most about the national political mood is not in Pennsylvania or Arkansas or Kentucky. Rather, it's the sales tax vote in Arizona.

Most of the elections that everyone is watching today are actually quite idiosyncratic and, as a result of those idiosyncrasies, not great gauges of where things are headed in November. If Republicans pick up Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district, that might be a sign that Democrats' U.S. House majority is in danger, but it might just be a sign that the only congressional district in the country to flip from Kerry to McCain is trending Republican. Maybe if Arlen Specter loses that will be a sign of the anti-incumbent mood, but maybe it will only be a sign that Democratic voters don't tend to like politicians who have been Republicans for decades. If Blanche Lincoln loses to Bill Halter in Arkansas, will that represent the rejection of a Democrat supported by the Obama White House or the rejection of a candidate who strayed from the Obama White House on key issues? Both, of course! I could go on, but you get the point.

In contrast, the vote in Arizona (just like the vote in Oregon a few months earlier) revolves around a (relatively) simple and important policy question: Do voters want to see governments balance their budgets through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts or exclusively through deep spending cuts? Under the ballot measure, the sales tax would increase by a cent for the next three years. In effect, Arizonans are choosing between the fiscal approach generally favored by liberals and Democrats and the one generally favored by conservatives and Republicans.

Combined with Oregon's January vote to raise taxes, a vote in Arizona for the sales tax increase would send a pretty clear message that, despite all the angst about government right now, the public cherishes government services and wants them to be funded. If Arizona rejects the sales tax increase even as tens of thousands of people in the state are losing their health insurance because of budget cuts, that will be a strong small-government message. The failure of the measure would result in around a billion dollars in additional cuts, with the largest share coming from reduced education spending.

While the vote today in Arizona will be a major verdict on policy, increasingly its political impact looks more muted. Almost from the beginning of her tenure as governor, Jan Brewer has pushed for the sales tax increase. In doing so, she's endangered her conservative credentials and jeopardized her chances of winning a full term.

What's changed, of course, is that Brewer's conservative credentials are looking stronger after she signed the state's new immigration bill into law.  She's now the favorite in the Republican primary.

The immigration debate also seems to have sucked the oxygen out of the sales tax campaign. I'm not sure, though, which side will benefit from that.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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