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Valley Metro’s Misuse of Taxpayer Dollars Takes Democracy Off the Rails

July 11, 2019

July 11, 2019
By Jon Riches

Although Arizona state law wisely prohibits the use of taxpayer resources for electioneering and other political activities, Valley Metro appears to be using public resources to influence the outcome of Phoenix Proposition 105, a voter-led ballot measure that would prohibit the expansion of light rail and redirect revenues to other transportation requirements. 

That’s why today, the Goldwater Institute is challenging Valley Metro’s apparent use of taxpayer resources. In a letter sent to Valley Metro, the Institute has asked Valley Metro to stop using its personnel and resources on influencing the outcome of the proposition.

Valley Metro is a regional transit system providing public transit in Phoenix and its surrounding areas, and it also operates light rail with a companion organization called Valley Metro Rail, Inc. Since its inception over 10 years ago, light rail in Phoenix has been controversial, as residents and taxpayers have wondered whether the city needs a very limited and extraordinary costly rail system at all, since Phoenix is dominated by suburbs, sprawl, and automobile commuters. These criticisms have grown particularly prescient as ride-sharing (and soon-to-be-common autonomous vehicles) have grown in popularity and shrunk in cost.

Criticisms of the light rail increased and took on heightened urgency as city leaders approved an expansion of the light rail into south Phoenix, which would shrink Central Avenue to two lanes, hurting businesses in the corridor and increasing traffic congestion in an already congested area. These and other concerns led city residents to organize an opposition group that submitted more than 40,000 signatures to put Proposition 105 before voters in August. If approved, Prop 105 would stop light rail expansion and redirect transportation revenues to other areas.    

Valley Metro, of course, has a vested financial interest in the continued expansion of light rail. As such, many at Valley Metro and its member cities would likely prefer to see Proposition 105 defeated. 

Fortunately, under Arizona law, public resources can never be used to advance whatever preferences Valley Metro or its leadership may have on an election question before voters. Arizona’s prohibitions on using public resources to influence an election extend to the state, counties, cities, and school boards.

State statute also broadly prohibits money in the Public Transportation Fund (“Fund”) from being “spent to promote or advocate a position, alternative or outcome of an election, to influence public opinion…with respect to an election regarding taxes or other sources of revenue for the fund…” Valley Metro receives a major share of its budget from the Fund. Valley Metro Rail also receives significant funding from the Fund as well as contributions from taxpayers of member cities, including Chandler, Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix, and Tempe. 

Thus, money allocated to Valley Metro, including to pay staff salaries and maintain Valley Metro’s website would fall within these statutory prohibitions against electioneering. 

Despite these prohibitions, it appears that Valley Metro’s Chief Executive Officer, Scott Smith, has spoken at several public events during which he attempted to influence public opinion regarding Proposition 105. Valley Metro’s official website also contains a “Just the Facts” page, which characterizes Proposition 105 in a negative light and gives editorial reasons as to why the measure should be defeated.       

It is, of course, axiomatic that as a public policy matter, taxpayer resources should not be spent to influence the outcome of an election. In Arizona, that also happens to be the law. Whatever the views of Valley Metro and its employees on Proposition 105, or any other election question, those views should not be advanced using official resources. This is particularly true when this particular ballot question involves sources of revenue that would impact Valley Metro’s operations. 

Arizona is a state in which publicly financed officials charged with administering the law don’t get to use taxpayer resources to impose their views on what that law should be. Any attempt by Valley Metro to use taxpayer resources to influence public opinion regarding Proposition 105 should stop immediately. Voters, not publicly financed officials with a vested financial interest, should determine the outcome of Proposition 105.

You can read the full letter to Valley Metro here.

Jon Riches is the Director of National Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.



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