The Arizona State Legislature convened on Jan. 9, which began the 2017 Legislative Session. At the top of the legislature’s and governor’s agenda will be crafting a budget that meets the needs of the state’s 6.8 million residents. Coconino County has been there at the session since day one, advocating and respectfully asking the lawmakers not to balance the books on the backs of county taxpayers.
We have good reason to be concerned. After the recession began in late 2008, Arizona legislators took several actions to maintain a balanced state budget, many of which either reduced funding to the counties, or increased mandates upon them. In Coconino County, those decisions have resulted in an economic impact of more than $9.7 million since 2009.
What do we want? To be sure that the state is providing Coconino – and all other counties in the state – the financial stability necessary to continue providing mandated services to the levels our residents have come to expect. It’s our priority because the funds make it possible for us to service our citizens, and to protect health and safety.
The county will be asking state lawmakers to eliminate the mandated county payments to the state-operated Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. Two years ago, the state changed the law and, as a way of managing state revenue shortfall, and began requiring counties to subsidize the department. Without a change, this mandate will cost county taxpayers approximately $11 million in the coming fiscal year.
Our county Juvenile Corrections operation is recognized across the state for the good work we do to rehabilitate kids and keep them out of the state corrections system. We utilize evidence-based practices and work with troubled youths to reduce recidivism, which reduces taxpayer expense. Only our most severe cases are sent to the state correctional facility. Once they are there, the county has no control over how long they stay. If we have no control, it makes no sense that the county should bear the cost.
The county will also work with legislators to solve the funding gap in our aging transportation infrastructure system. Our roads and bridges need repair and upkeep, and the funding system to pay for it no longer works. The Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) – a combination of state gas taxes, vehicle license fees, registration fees and other transportation-related revenues – was created to raise funds for municipalities, counties and the state highway fund to pay for transportation projects. However, in recent years, money in the fund has been diverted to other uses. We believe that the state needs to fully restore HURF to its intended purpose.
We are not alone in needing help with roads and bridges. Across the country infrastructure needs repair. The state and federal government funded construction, but due to changing driving habits, fuel efficiency, and electric cars, gas taxes no longer cover the cost to maintain roads. Recently, county supervisors and staff testified on behalf of the county before the State Surface Transportation Funding Task Force to weigh in on potential long-term and short-term solutions. To fully invest in our roads, we must take a holistic approach to funding our infrastructure needs.
There are many other issues and budgetary items that the county will be advocating for during this legislative session. It is imperative that the county has a voice at the capitol on behalf of its residents to prevent further diversions of resources or increased regulatory burdens on local government.
We look forward to working with the Arizona State Legislature and the Governor’s Office on behalf of our mutual constituencies. There are many changes that would provide meaningful relief to all counties while promoting good government and proper stewardship of taxpayer resources. FBN
By Cynthia Seelhammer