What is worse than your elected legislators voting for a tax increase?  Your elected legislators voting to allow an unelected bureaucrat to raise your taxes.

SB 1146 and HB 2166 would do just that.  Both bills would grant the Director of Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) the authority to charge any Highway Safety Fee rate they desire as well as set the initial percentage rate of the base retail value of a vehicle that will be used to assess the car owner’s VLT.

As it relates to the Highway Safety Fee, the only ostensible constraint in the proposed legislation is the requirement that the Highway Safety Fee funds 110 percent of the Department of Public Safety’s highway patrol’s fiscal budget, minus any monies left in the fund that exceed 10 percent of the prior year’s fees.   In other words, the fee must directly and fully fund DPS.  However, this is not how the government appropriation process works or should work.

There is a good reason we don’t let the head government bureaucrat decide how much money they need to operate and then tell the tax payers to fork over the money.  Instead, our system has representatives of the taxpayer determine priorities for funding and evaluate what the taxpayer base can ultimately afford and require the government to conform to the funds available.  This proposal is an inversion of this process and circumvents these safeguards to promote spending restraint and ensure the taxpayers’ representatives are active agents in determining spending priorities.

This means depending on who is in political power as Governor, they could use their administrative appointment authority to push their policy agenda, game the State’s VLT and unilaterally pick winners and losers.  They could choose to charge more VLT for “gas-guzzling” suburbans that would disproportionally harm large families.  Or they could charge more VLT for non-American made cars or charge no VLT for two-door convertibles.  There is no requirement in the legislation to ensure the registration fee is uniform among taxpayers.

The broad support for this type of legislative gimmickry is baffling.  For years lawmakers have complained of too much power vested in the executive branch, yet here is a bill that willingly surrenders their constitutional taxing authority to the Governor.Shockingly this bill has generated a good deal of support among legislative members.  SB 1146 received a unanimous vote from the members of the transportation committee and HB 2166 sailed through its committee with a vote of 6-1 and passed the House with a floor vote of 35 Ayes and 24 Nays.

Additionally, it is clear that both bills are designed to sidestep Prop 108, which requires a 2/3 vote in each legislative body to approve a tax increase.  If lawmakers believe that this new registration fee is a good idea, they should identify and debate what that amount should be and set that amount in statute.  But many lawmakers want to disguise the fact that they are supporting a tax increase, so bad public policy is what taxpayers get stuck with.

The only question now is how and when this tactic will be used next. Perhaps we should allow the director of Department of Revenue to set our income tax rates? An idea that would have been considered laughable a few year ago is now a real threat to Arizona taxpayers.

It would seem many of our elected leaders have accepted the premise that the ends justify the means.  They so desperately want to put more money into infrastructure and roads, they care little about how it is ultimately accomplished.  Because raising taxes is difficult both politically and process-wise, this tactic allows them to side step the process to raise taxes and avoid political accountability.

But lawmakers shouldn’t think they are fooling anyone.  They may think this is a clever way to not have to answer to taxpayers about a tax increase.  But they would be wrong.