Home Rule – No Change Back from Your Billion Dollars

In addition to the three Council races, this November’s ballot will include a referendum on Home Rule. Now, most of us associate the notion of “Home Rule” with either Ireland or India, but this is this case, Home Rule will free the City of Tucson from spending limits imposed by the Constitution of Arizona.

The history of this constitutional law begins in the late 1970’s, when property tax rates in California rose so quickly that many people could no longer afford their homes and lost them. The people revolted, and the result was a change to the California Constitution that put spending limits on municipalities. Fearing that Arizonans might become similarly Californicated, our legislature passed a similar change to the Arizona Constitution.

So, a baseline was established in 1980 that defined the upper limit of municipal discretionary spending. Of course, provisions were included to increased the limit concomitantly with both inflation and population growth. That way, the same level of service could be maintained ad infinitum – without violating the limit.

This point cannot be overemphasized. New Police and Fire Stations will continue to be built with existing increases based on growth and inflation. Nothing will have to be cut or reduced if Home Rule is not approved, we’re talking new or increased services here. The City wants to abandon the limit so it can spend more money on new services. To do this, it needs voter approval.

City Manager Mike Hein knows that threatening plagues and locusts if they do not get voter approval will not play well in Tucson; so, he approaches the sale from a totally different angle. He points out that revenues are increasing faster than the limit is rising. This will result in a projected nine million dollar surplus in fiscal year 2007, and as much as twenty five million in fiscal year 2008. Without abandoning the limit, that money cannot be spent, and will lie fallow in a bank account!

Now, only a government employee is offended by money in the bank, or thinks that this abhorrent situation will drive voters to the polls to help him get at it! The way the City sees it, the nine million is the carrot, and you are the donkey. The way I see it, it’s like going to a hardware store and buying a set of tools for ninety dollars, handing the clerk a one hundred dollar bill, and instead of handing you ten bucks, he gives you an extra wrench. I think the people of Tucson would rather have the change, thank you very much.

It is true that the Home Rule option, if passed, would last for four years; at which time the voters would get a chance to give it a thumbs up or down. This does make it somewhat less frightening. I used the term “option” because there are other tools that can be used to increase the limit; for example, in 1983 and 1987 Tucson made permanent increases to the baseline to bump up the limit beyond the accommodations for inflation and growth. It makes one wonder, why are we not increasing the baseline as in those previous years? Why are we now turning to Home Rule?

I suspect that it would be difficult to spend all the skyrocketing projected surpluses with a simple baseline increase. Perhaps the answer to Home Rule option selection lies there.

In any event, I find it humorous that the only solution, of which the City seems to be aware, to the spending/revenue numbers not lining up is to increase spending. You know, you could make them line up by reducing the revenue. Did that occur to anyone downtown? This is an election year. Any candidate who wants to win should issue a press release stating the following: “If elected, I will take trash collection out of the enterprise category, put it back in discretionary spending where it belongs, and use the projected surplus to reduce or eliminate the trash collection fee!” There are five Council candidates out there. Who wants to win? Anybody?

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