By Linda Kor
Lawmakers are considering whether to allow the formation of a committee that would consider redrawing county lines for Navajo, Apache and Coconino counties in order to create a new county encompassing the Navajo and Hopi reservations.
A bill, introduced by Senator Chester Crandell (R) of District 6 and co-sponsored by Senator Jack Jackson Jr. of District 2, a member of the Navajo Nation, is being considered that would allow a committee to be formed to determine whether it would be feasible to create a new county and what the fiscal impacts would be.
If a new county is created, both the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe would be eligible to receive a portion of state shared revenues that by statute can only be distributed to municipalities and counties. State shared revenues consist of taxes collected through state sales tax, state income tax and highway user revenues.
The idea is not a new one. In the 1980s a similar bill passed through the legislature, but was vetoed by then-governor Bruce Babbitt. It has been revived for discussion since then and as recently as last year, former senator Sylvia Allen proposed forming a committee for the same consideration. Allen, who now serves as the District III member of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors, believes it’s an idea worth looking at.
“This has been done in other states and since our counties are so intertwined with the reservation communities already, this could be advantageous,” she said. In the past, the idea has not been supported by the Navajo Nation, but with Jackson co-sponsoring the bill, it could mean a change of opinion.
“One of the issues is that the other counties in the state would likely oppose the addition of another county. We currently have 15 counties and one more would mean splitting more of the pot (of state-shared revenues),” noted Allen.
If the decision was made to create a county, Allen speculates that it would likely mean taking Navajo County and Apache County and changing the boundaries, with one county becoming a reservation county to the north and the other to the south in order to keep the state at 15 counties.
“The only drawback is that there is no private property tax that would be collected on the reservation, but perhaps a county tax could be considered,” stated Allen, adding that no property tax would mean a simpler structure of government for the reservation. Although tribal lands are considered sovereign, state taxes are collected for corporations operating on Navajo land and sales taxes are paid in border cities.
If the bill passes, a joint committee on county boundaries would be formed consisting of a representative from both the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe, as well as a representative from each of the three counties, and a member from both parties of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The bill is currently before the Senate before moving on to the House. If it passes the legislature and Governor Jan Brewer signs it into law, the issue would be researched, with a report made by the end of December.
By Linda Kor