Something very weird happened in Payson last week.
Three legislative candidates spoke in depth on the issues, never once insulted their opponents and left with the respect of people from the other party.
The candidates included Payson’s own, Democrat Elaine Bohlmeyer, running for the state senate against Republican incumbent Sylvia Allen. In addition, counselor Prescott Winslow and train engineer Bill Shumway, both of Winslow, are running against accountant Brenda Barton and educator Chester Crandell for two open seats in the state house.
The three Democrats seeking to represent Payson in one of the state’s most competitive districts sailed through more than two hours of detailed questions on politically explosive topics before the Citizens Awareness Committee — taking a host of strong positions on everything from raising taxes to illegal immigration.
All three candidates called for major education reforms — including significantly increased funding.
They all also called for comprehensive immigration reform and described the politically controversial SB 1070 as a politically motivated distraction that won’t solve the underlying problem. They also supported for a bipartisan effort to overhaul the state’s tax code to not only close the gaping deficit without further cutting education funding, but to make state revenue less subject to boom-bust swings based on the volatile sales tax.
Some 40 people peppered the candidates with questions in a crowd that included Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Currently, the registration in the district that stretches from Winslow to Safford and from Pine to Alpine stands at 40 percent Democrat, 40 percent Republican and 20 percent Independent.
At the end of the exhaustive series of questions that elicited not a single attack on an opponent, CAC member John Wakelin said “I find all three of you refreshing. You’ve been right on and issue-oriented. You’ve changed my mind.”
Bill Power, who said he was a life-long Republican and an ardent supporter of the Tea Party movement, said “I’m extremely impressed with all three of you. I would feel well represented by any one of you.”
Much of the discussion focused on the explosive issue of immigration reform, followed by detailed discussion of the state budget mess and the plight of education in a state where per-student spending ranked among the lowest in the nation — even before deep cuts in the past two budget cycles.
All three candidates also expressed strong support for Gila Community College’s bid to win independence and separate accreditation, which could result in more state aid locally than its current provisional status, under the terms of a management contract with Eastern Arizona College.
On the politically polarizing topic of immigration reform, all three candidates said that even though SB 1070 didn’t solve the problem — it did bring welcome attention to the federal government’s failure to deal with drug cartels that have turned portions of the Arizona borderlands into a dangerous no-man’s land.
Shumway said the state law directing local police to require anyone they stopped to show proof of citizenship “put the issue on the front burner. It got the federal government going. But we need a package for immigration that addresses the problem across the board.”
He criticized a Missouri law that would bar even medical care to illegal immigrants. “This is America — we’re not going to refuse to give a person with his head half cut off or a broken arm medical care.”
Bohlmeyer said that SB 1070 was “more concerned with short-term emotions instead of what’s good for our state.” She said the solution lies in not only patrolling the border, but in enforcing employer sanctions, establishing a guest worker program and finding a way for people who have lived and worked in the country for a long time to gain legal status.
Winslow said SB 1070 was “a poster child for legislation that is the wrong solution to an actual problem. SB 1070 is just a political football — a very emotional one.”
He said the great irony of the measure is that even as the Legislature complained about the federal government imposing costs on state government by failing to enforce immigration law, SB 1070 imposed an unfunded mandate on local law enforcement agencies.
He added, “I want (the police) going after people who are a danger to my community, not someone who snuck across the border to clean hotel rooms. What I would really like to see is the governor and the Legislature assemble on the steps of the Capitol (in Washington, D.C.) and demand comprehensive immigration reform.”
The three candidates also took forthright positions on the state’s budget crisis. State revenues heavily dependent on sales taxes plunged when the recession set in, forcing billions in cuts that have still left the state with a projected deficit this year of about $2 billion.
All three candidates supported establishing a bi-partisan task force to overhaul the state’s tax structure, to ensure it would generate enough money to support a first-rate education system, spread the tax burden fairly and make state revenues less volatile.
Winslow said “the current tax structure is deeply flawed, because we’re overly dependent on property taxes. That was a foolish error. But we’re not going to get anything passed without a bipartisan agreement” since state law requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to raise any tax levels. “We need a package deal with an up-or-down vote — no amendments — or the whole deal comes unraveled.”
Bohlmeyer said “we’re getting to the real nitty-gritty now — where our problems are. We need to look at every agency and look at waste and inefficiency, but we also need to go after the $400 million in unpaid back taxes. We need to close loopholes and tax credits and exemptions. For instance, you don’t pay sales tax on four-inch water pipes because everyone needs water. But I could make a case for anything. Why pay sales tax on school supplies? On diapers? Whoever has the biggest lobbyist gets the exemption.”
She said as a result of the repeated cuts in income tax rates and the many loopholes in the system that wealthy taxpayers “are not paying their fair share.”
Shumway said that the state must raise more money, but also impose targeted spending cuts. “There’s a lot wrong with the state economy, but let’s face it: We’re going through a tough recession.”
He said both parties had been irresponsible in the period leading up to the crash. For instance, he said Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano struck a deal with the Republican-controlled Legislature to win her top priority all-day kindergarten. Republicans supported the program in exchange for additional tax cuts.
“So when the economy crashed, they repealed all-day kindergarten, but not the tax cuts, which are permanent,” he said.
He called the sales tax regressive, because it falls heaviest on low-income people without having much impact on well-off taxpayers.
“We have to roll up our sleeves, just like a family during tough times, and decide what our ‘wants’ are and what our ‘needs’ are.”