Rural Voice Not Heard By Urban Lawmakers

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The need to work together was a major theme of the day from the perspective of Arizona's District 5 legislators at a town hall-style forum this week.

"You have some controversial issues and when you have controversial issues," said Sen. Jake Flake, "it's easy to start pointing fingers and saying why aren't you doing this and why aren't you doing that? I think we've got to get our heads together and say how we can solve our problems. And I think we'll get a long way if we learn to do just that."

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Sen. Jake Flake (R)

Sen. Flake (R), Reps. Bill Konopnicki (R) and Jack A. Brown (D) spoke Oct. 3.

The three men gave a legislative update that included reports on rural heath care and rural retiree insurance, state land, forest health, education redesign and water.

They then opened the floor to questions and answers.

"When they (the legislature) bid on health care costs in Arizona, they've got to bid on all of Arizona and not just cherry-pick the urban areas," Flake said, explaining what he felt was the answer to the "skyrocketing" costs of rural health insurance and health care.

Responding to questions about the lack of private land in Arizona, Flake said the state's founding fathers gave 9.5 million acres of land to be held in trust for the schools, and designated them for their "highest and best use." For most of the state's 90 years, the "use" was cattle grazing. Now, he said, he thinks some of that land should be sold for conservation and some for development.

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Rep. Bill Konopnicki (R)

Since the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, the state is giving tax incentives for business startups in the forest products industry. Flake said he would like to see more small sawmills and biomass (electricity generating) plants start up in small towns within his district.

"Most of them are using either burned logs from the fires or small diameter trees. The only thing that is going to keep them going is a supply of timber," Flake said.

Mayor Barbara Brewer was worried about fires closer to town since the forest service has taken away the goats. She said the animals were supposed to eat a 300-foot swath around the town as a firebreak. The forest service pulled them off before the project was anywhere near completion.

Our forest officials promised us $3,000,000 in federal funds after the Willow Fire, said Town Manager Fred Carpenter. The officials told him that forest thinning was the number-one issue that would save the Rim Country. The next fire season is expected to begin in May, or sooner, depending upon winter precipitation.

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Rep. Jack A. Brown (D)

Brown said he would take the pleas for help to the forest service meeting next Friday. He cautioned that the big dollars needed to thin the forests aren't in the state coffers.

On the college

The ability of community college students to matriculate with their credits into the state university system was another issue presented to the legislators.

The men said they were committed to defeating another bill in the legislature that would kill Gila County's provisional community college district.

"We are at the defining moment in Arizona," said Konopnicki. Higher education redesign is either going to be the building block or the stumbling block to the future.

A review of provisional college districts will go before the legislature in 2009.

That review can result in 10 more years for the legislation creating provisional districts, or it can be dissolved entirely, said Konopnicki.

"We've really got to get on the same page," he continued. "We can't afford to waste one minute of our time arguing over small details. What we need to be arguing about is the right of Gila County to continue provisional college districts .... You do not want to have (that right) stripped from you."

"There are several of you here that are not shy at all about letting us know how you feel. We can only represent you if we know what's on your mind," Konopnicki said in his closing remarks.

Editor's note: For more on water, see accompanying article by Jim Keyworth in today's edition of the Roundup.

See complete transcript: Transcript of legislators forum - Part I

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