A campaign flier recently sent out by state Senate candidate Bill Konopnicki fabricates a quote and warns residents that challenger Sen. Sylvia Allen’s plan to set Gila Community College free will “take funding from rural community colleges and could cause some to shut down.”
Aimed at households outside of Gila County, Konopnicki warned that Allen “has a plan to take money from our students at Northland Pioneer and Eastern Arizona Colleges.”
The flier also fabricated a quote by Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association. McCarthy sits on the task force Allen started to draft legislation to award GCC accreditation.
“Allen’s plan for Gila Community College to become independent is a colossal waste of time,” the flier alleged McCarthy said. In reality, McCarthy said at a recent task force meeting that basing the plan on winning more rural college money from the state was a “colossal waste of time.”
McCarthy said Monday, “to say that I said Allen’s plan is a colossal waste of time — that’s inaccurate.”
McCarthy said the flier frustrated him because his organization is non-partisan and strives to stay out of campaign cross-fires.
“I think it’s probably the first time in my career I’ve been pulled into one of these races in quite this manner,” he said. He said that the tax research association has looked at GCC’s provisional status with sympathy.
This flier comes after Konopnicki first called the existing college a “miracle” in March. Then in April, he suggested starting a study committee, and accused Allen of stealing his idea for a GCC task force.
And just last month, Konopnicki told Payson residents at a July campaign debate that he supported GCC’s bid for independence.
Konopnicki did not respond to a request for comment before press time.
Allen called it, “the latest indication of Mr. Konopnicki’s willingness to distort the facts to suit his own agenda,” in a press release.
GCC board and task force member Tom Loeffler said that voters don’t need “scare tactics when they are making political decisions as to the merits of candidates.”
Ultimately, whoever wins November’s state Senate race will be largely responsible for shepherding the task force’s proposal into law.
State statute forbids Gila County from operating an independent college because the county falls short of population and tax-base thresholds. GCC operates as a so-called provisional college, which must contract with a full-fledged community college for accreditation.
For now, GCC contracts with Graham County’s EAC. Both colleges fall inside the same legislative district, and GCC’s run for freedom has emerged as a key issue for August’s legislative primary. While opposing Allen’s plan, Konopnicki has also introduced bills for EAC to offer four-year degrees.
“We need voters to know the facts and to base their decisions on true information, not on scare tactics,” wrote Allen in an e-mail response to a request for comment.
In a statement, Allen wrote that Gila County taxpayers have financially supported other community colleges statewide for the past decade, while GCC’s per-student state funding levels have fallen far short of state averages.
In 2010, GCC received $808 per full-time student while EAC received more than $9,500.
A $35 million pot of money designated specifically for rural community colleges accounted for most of the difference. For now, provisional colleges don’t receive any of this money, and Gila’s potential entry into the pot as a full-fledged college has stirred tensions.
“I understand the state’s budget shortfalls and the tight budgets that the community colleges are dealing with,” wrote Allen. “My plan, with the help of the task force, would not divert any current funding now going to other community colleges.”
In fact, Allen says colleges like EAC could actually receive more money because of changes that would occur in the funding formula.
Allen says the task force’s ultimate plan will outline a road to independence that doesn’t require new state taxes.
Also, the president of Northland Pioneer College, whose students Konopnicki warned would lose money if GCC gained independence, sits on the task force.
Meanwhile, Konopnicki’s flier quotes EAC President Mark Bryce as saying that the rural college funding “is like oxygen. Without it, our mission of providing higher education in rural Arizona is at risk.”
EAC received $17 million of rural college money in 2010 — about half the total pot.
Bryce “has nothing to talk about since his college is getting $17 million in equalization aid (rural college money) at the same time as Gila is getting zero,” Allen wrote in an e-mail.