Rim Country state legislative candidates unanimously agreed at a recent forum in Payson that Gila Community College should receive funding equal to other community colleges in the state.
In a wide-ranging discussion that touched on energy independence, a highway bypassing Payson and health care, the three house candidates and two state senate candidates amicably agreed across party lines.
On the community college question, Republican Rep. Bill Konopnicki said legislation has come dangerously close to completely abolishing provisional college districts, and that he and Democrat Rep. Jack Brown have fought other legislators for Gila County to keep its college.
“The real issue is the way the state of Arizona funds colleges,” Konopnicki said.
Brown said, “We’d like to move it on to the next level.” Advocating that the college’s emphasis remain on growth, Brown said he couldn’t say when the law would change. However, “we can get that done,” he said.
Payson resident Barbara Brewer, a Republican candidate for state representative, said she helped bring a college to Gila County at the start. “We can do better,” she said, advocating for independence.
Brewer urged the college’s board of governors not to sign a new 10-year contract. On Friday, the college board tabled the contract.
State law says Gila County has neither enough population nor assessed value to legally run its own community college. Eastern Arizona College essentially operates GCC, and GCC receives less than half per-student funding than do other community colleges. Advocates want to change the law so GCC can operate independently. Konopnicki has said that’s a tough political battle unlikely to gain wide legislative support.
Two spots are open for state representative, with incumbents Brown, a Democrat from St. Johns, and Konopnicki, a Republican from Safford, challenged by Republican Brewer.
On the senate side, Republican State Senator Sylvia Tenney Allen said she agreed with more funding — the real issue — but could understand why a community would want an autonomous college.
“If your little college here could get more money, then that’s what it needs,” whether it’s a provisional college or not, Allen said.
Democrat Bill Jeffers, who is challenging Allen, expressed his support for community colleges, especially the work force development programs they offer.
“I’m confident that you will no longer be a stepchild,” he said, also advocating for equal funding.
The race for state senator pits Republican and Snowflake resident Allen, who took the seat after Jake Flake died, against Democrat and Holbrook resident Jeffers.
Candidates said they supported energy independence, and promoted developing wind, solar and nuclear power, along with increased oil drilling. Jeffers said Arizona is “uniquely positioned” for unparalleled harnessing of wind and solar power.
Brewer said environmentalists are prohibiting access to energy. “It’s time to say enough.” She added, “stop saying no to industry. It’s saying no to jobs.”
Brewer and Allen cited China’s nuclear plants as proof of safety.
Allen said, “these people (the Chinese) are on the move.” She acknowledged China’s problems with pollution, but said “we can do it more environmentally friendly than they do.”
Brown said, “My wife says we have enough wind in St. Johns to power the whole state.” But he said wind and solar need more time to become viable alternatives, and that nuclear energy could provide more immediate energy sovereignty.
Consumers should also consume less, Brown said. “Most of us leave the lights on (when we leave rooms). I know I do.”
Konopnicki advocated increased use of natural gas to power trucks, and said a clearer plan is necessary. “First define what we want to do, then do it,” he said.
Discussion surrounding a highway to bypass Payson and Star Valley led Konopnicki to clarify that Payson residents will ultimately decide if that happens, and not the state legislature. But, he said it’s “not if that will happen, but when.”
He also said it’s important to mitigate impacts on businesses from decreased traffic.
Allen said raising taxes is not the way to fund projects.
Brewer said elected representatives need to demand that money be kept in rural Arizona rather than building “more freeways or bridges to nowhere in Maricopa County.” Jeffers said the discussion is superfluous because there’s no money.
Brown acknowledged congestion and said every time he drives through Payson “I think, ‘I’m going to work harder on that bypass.’”