Legislators in fiscally conservative Arizona are looking at the upcoming 5-cents-a-gallon boost in federal gasoline taxes as a way to help them balance the state's budget.
Arizona is one of dozens of states facing big deficits this year and bound by state constitutions that forbid them from going into debt.
Two proposals have emerged from a myriad of suggested tax increases and revenue speedups designed to help the state put its current budget in balance and do the same with 1983-1984 spending that begins July 1.
One plan calls for the state to transfer money from its highway fund--money that comes from local gasoline taxes--into the general fund. The federal money, expected to total about $40 million this year, then would be used to replenish the state highway fund.
The other proposal would have the state impose its own 5-cents-a-gallon hike in taxes for two months until the federal levy goes into effect April 1. Then the state tax boost would self-destruct.
State Sen. Anne Lindeman, a Phoenix Republican, suggested that because gasoline prices are at their lowest levels in years this would be a good time to give Arizona motorists a two-month preview of the federal gas tax hike.
"I don't think that's a bad idea," Lindeman told fellow members of the state Senate Appropriations Committee. The plan, she said, would raise about $10 million.
But another Phoenix Republican, Sen. Tony West, asked: "Is there a foxhole to jump into?" Sen. Polly Getzwiller, a Democrat from rural Casa Grande, observed: "It would take two months to get it passed."
One reason Arizona lawmakers are gun-shy about tampering with gasoline taxes is that they struggled for nearly a year to add 5 cents to the state tax, phased in over a three-year period. Two cents of that hike went into effect last year and another 2 cents will show up in pump prices July 1.
Lindeman later said she wasn't really serious about pushing up the federal tax increase by two months.
But state Rep. Jim Skelly, a Scottsdale Republican, is serious about his plans. Traditionally, Arizona has channeled money from state gasoline taxes into the Department of Public Safety to pay for the Highway Patrol and other motorist-related matters. The diversion this year will amount to $20 million.
Skelly wants to take even more from the highway fund as a means of shoring up the weak general fund. He offered his plan during a meeting of the state House Ways and Means Committee, which was considering a bill to speed up tax collections from corporations.
The speedup, which would bring Arizona in line with federal taxpaying procedures, is strongly opposed by the business community.
"This bill is, in fact, a tax increase, because it's going to cost business more money," Skelly said of the speedup proposal. "Why not get the money from the Arizona transportation department? They're going to get more money from the feds anyway with the 5-cent gas tax Congress passed."
One economist, however, noted that the federal money is earmarked for interstate highways and bridge repairs, so if local gasoline taxes are siphoned from the fund, work on state and county roads could suffer.
Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, acknowledging that the state could be as much as $140 million in debt by July 1, has endorsed the speedup plan. He also recommended using taxes from the sale of auto parts and license tags for general fund purposes instead of for highway projects.