Republican Senate candidate front runner Jeff Flake brought his campaign back to Payson for the second time in three weeks with a sharply drawn attack on federal regulations, the Democratic Senate, President Barack Obama and federal spending.
“We’re closer to the edge of the cliff than we’ve ever been,” said the five-term Republican congressman seeking to replace retiring Sen. Jon Kyl. “Unfortunately, Congress tends to not act only when we’re halfway over the edge staring into the abyss. I don’t think we know where that edge of the cliff is. We could have a treasury auction and there are just no buyers — and China says, ‘we have enough of your debt.’”
Flake, known chiefly for his long crusade against congressional budget earmarks, faces opposition in the Republican primary from Mesa businessman Wil Cardon, former Youngtown mayor Bryan Hackbarth, businessman Doug McKee and radio host Clair Van Steenwyk.
He has a big lead in the polls and will likely face former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who has the Democratic nomination virtually sewn up. Flake also leads Carmona in several statewide polls currently.
Flake said averting disaster nationally requires uniting behind Republicans who can retake control of the U.S. Senate and electing Mitt Romney as president.
On Friday morning, he fielded questions at a session organized by the Rim Country Chamber of Commerce, before heading off for a luncheon with Payson community leaders.
The offspring of a pioneering White Mountain Mormon family, Flake at one time headed up the Goldwater Institute before his election as a Libertarian Republican congressman, who routinely took to the House floor to embarrass Republicans and Democrats alike for seeking spending earmarks for their districts.
On Friday, he staunchly supported House Republican budget plans that feature deep cuts in domestic spending, additional deep reductions in income tax rates for the wealthy, closure of unspecified tax loopholes, turning most safety net programs into no-strings block grants to states and converting Medicare for those younger than 55 into a system that subsidizes premiums paid to private plans rather than providing direct coverage.
He said the nation’s $16 trillion deficit will soon reach the “point of no return” that will produce an economic meltdown.
“Pretty soon we’re going to be where Greece is,” he said.
Flake said Republicans and Democrats alike created the problem by letting federal spending spin out of control and promising benefits for Medicaid, Social Security and Medicare the nation could not afford to keep.
“We were headed for this fiscal cliff long before the Democrats took the wheel, but they hit the accelerator,” said Flake. “This is a problem both parties got us into.”
Flake said he was one of the first to embrace a budget plan advanced by Rep. Paul Ryan, which recently won the unanimous support of House Republicans, but not a single Democratic vote.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that the proposal would have little impact on Social Security, but cause virtually all other federal spending to decline dramatically. The CBO estimated that federal spending, excluding Social Security, would decline from 12 percent of the Gross Domestic Product to 3 percent of GDP by 2050. The CBO projected the Ryan approach would produce a budget surplus by 2040 and would reduce the federal debt from about 48 percent of GDP in 2040 and down to 10 percent by 2050.
However, critics maintain that the proposal would result in a dramatic increase in the amount people on Medicare would have to pay out of pocket for their medical care. Moreover, critics maintain such a dramatic decline in federal spending would shred the safety net programs like food stamps, welfare and Medicaid (known as AHCCCS in Arizona.)
The CBO analysis concluded the Ryan proposal would require the government to eliminate most programs other than defense, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The plan would return federal spending as a share of GDP to levels not seen since the 1950s, before the invention of Medicare, Medicaid and most federal spending on education, highways and environmental protection. The CBO analysis suggested the Ryan plan would reduce Medicaid spending by about 75 percent. Currently, Medicaid covers 30 percent of Gila County residents.
Flake told a supportive audience on Friday that only the Ryan budget makes a serious attempt to get the federal deficit under control. “All I hear from the other side is the chirping of crickets. They don’t have a plan.”
Flake also said senseless federal regulations threaten to choke off economic growth.
“Federal agencies are running amuck, regulating like there’s no tomorrow — aided and abetted by a Senate that won’t pass a budget.”
He said the Democratically controlled U.S. Senate hasn’t formally adopted a budget in three years, relying instead on continuing resolutions that prevent legislative committees from having hearings and exercise control over individual departments. As a result, Congress has no way to effectively control federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.
As an example, he cited efforts by the EPA to reduce emissions from the coal-fired Navajo Generating Plant near Page.
He said the plant provides power needed to run the Central Arizona Project that delivers water to Phoenix and Tucson. The plant and a nearby coal mine provide 1,000 jobs, mostly for Navajo and Hopi workers living on reservations.
If the EPA insists on pollution controls that cost more than $1 billion, the plant’s operators might shut it down causing “utter devastation” to the economy, said Flake.
A report commissioned by the EPA concluded the 2250-megawatt plant releases 19 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, making it the nation’s fifth largest emitter of carbon dioxide and the 11th largest emitter of nitrogen oxides. The plant uses 8 million tons of coal annually and 8 billion gallons of water from Lake Powell for cooling.
Federal studies have concluded that the fine particle pollution produced by coal-fired power plants cause an estimated 13,000 premature deaths annually nationwide. Several studies suggest the emissions from four coal-fired power plants in the region have contributed significantly to declining visibility in the Grand Canyon and other scenic areas.
On the other hand, the Central Arizona Project said the proposed pollution controls will increase the cost of pumping Colorado River water by about 20 percent, which could make the water too expensive for many farmers — currently the principle users. The CAP hopes to convince the EPA to approve a much less expensive set of scrubbers.
But Flake insists the EPA’s requirements are intended simply to shut down the plant. Even the EPA’s own studies cast doubt on whether the changes would actually clear up the haze limiting views at the Grand Canyon.